The Regional Future of East Asia

By Thomas French

China's rise will present both challenges and opportunities for states in the region.
China's economic growth, if sustainable will help to maintain the internal security of the emerging superpower.
The growth of the Chinese economy and its greater reliance on external energy and resource supplies will result in a more externally focused diplomatic and military posture. This may result in a regional arms race. China, the US and India and the constellation of states around each will form the likely balance of power over the next two decades. 

India is being clearly courted towards the US sphere, implying over time that India's interests may coalesce "more often" with those of South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines, Japan, Taiwan and the US. China has North Korea on side and an economy which, even at present is surpassing Japan, hitherto the most significant economic force in the region.

Balance of deterrence

China and India will increasingly find themselves in a race to acquire advance military capabilities to demonstrate their global and regional influence. This will likely be especially evidenced in the naval sphere given the various maritime territorial disputes in the region and the potential resources that the contested islands / archipelagos could hold. The prestige of the possession of a large navy including aircraft carriers will also play a secondary role in this.

China and India will probably field 1-2 crude aircraft carrier battle group forces within 5-10 years. Nuclear forces within the region will play a key role in deterrence, with both North Korea and China seeing these as the ultimate guarantee of defence against perceived US aggression.

Large conventional forces, utilising conscription to maintain numbers, will remain key to the balance of deterrence in the region, with PRC aligned forces utilising 'quantity' to counter US aligned "quality" (over the short and medium term). US aligned forces will also maintain significant conventional capabilities to counter regional aggression whilst remaining under the US nuclear "umbrella".

China is on a strategic treadmill where, given the threat of lower costs of manufacture from other regions (ie. Africa and South East Asia) it has to secure resources to maintain the engine of the economy so as to turn domestic minds away from political and human-rights concerns. This above dynamic may well influence the stability of China in its relations with neighbours, and internal unrest in China could result in aggressive actions abroad in order to bolster the regime, in a similar fashion to the events which preceded the Argentinean invasion of the Falklands in 1982.

Political stability

China is likely to seek to maintain its current "Asian values" strategy of prioritizing economic growth and giving it people development in exchange for their tacit acquiescence to one party rule. This political arrangement is likely to hold as long as the regime can maintain development, but if the economy falters, the regime could rapidly have to confront face serious internal threats to its survival.

The political stability of the region, in common with that of states across the globe, will be increasingly influenced by the demands of greater demand for a dwindling supply of resources. This may result in future disputes and possibly conflicts over energy, water, food and minerals. These future shortages will also have an impact on the internal security of states, as has been clearly demonstrated but the recent "Arab Spring" in which economic woes and food shortages, coupled with longstanding repression and human rights abuses quickly coalesced and spiralled into public protest and revolution.

If China can avoid its current challenges of an emerging asset bubble, and waves of public it can be argued that the country will continue to develop, albeit somewhat unevenly, until it reaches a level of internal development close to parity with its regional neighbours. This will increase Chinese demand for more foreign goods and sources of raw materials. Whilst this means China will become even more integrated into the world economy it will also mean China will need to adopt a more externally focused foreign policy.

This internationalization of China could however result in a greater level of internal political unrest in China. As its population becomes better educated, more widely travelled and has more international contacts; they may become more demanding in terms of human rights and political representation. Moreover, as China becomes more developed and more integrated into the world economy it will also be more susceptible to international financial crises which could also destabilize the economic and possibly internal security of the regime.

Continuing an emerging current trend, as China becomes more developed its labour costs will also increase and it will begin to outsource more of its production and this will provide opportunities for the states in the region such as North Korea and states in South East Asia. Foreign companies will also move some of their manufacturing out of China which could adversely affect its economy and hence stability.

The shrinking population of China and the large surplus of males generated by the one child policy could also adversely affect the economy and hence political stability if the policy is not abandoned in the near future.

Military stability

Instability without a "hot war" is likely to be the watchword of the next 5-10 year period for India, China and the US, with an arms race likely taking hold between the two, or three, sides.

China faces something of a paradox: economic growth means a greater requirement for external resources and hence a more assertive foreign policy, but with an increasingly internationalized economy, conflict becomes much less attractive.
Sea lane security becomes increasingly important as China becomes more dependent on international trade and external energy and material supplies, leading to naval expansion.

Large conventional forces will deter deliberate escalation of conflict or invasion, "hot war" scenarios are likely to develop out of uncontrolled escalation of tensions over key flashpoints.

Potential flashpoints

The Spratlys and Paracels: Unlikely to be resolved due to large numbers of states involved and lack of consensus. China could use the dispute as a way to test and demonstrate the power of its Navy.

Takeshima / Dokdo: If they draw closer or Japan could swallow making concessions, Japan and the ROK could possibly resolve the issuse and / or share the islets resources.

Senkaku / Diauyo: Unlikely to change as maintaining the "spectre" of Japan is useful for Chinese internal security as the PRC's nationalism is focused on overcoming China's "national humiliation", especially that dealt out to it by the Japanese.

Kuriles: Unlikely to change, but could be in Japan's national interest to do so (cheap energy, fishing rights etc) as long as it can disconnect the resolution from other issues and show illegal acts / force won't make it give in.

Economic stability

The key issue in regional economic stability is China.

The Chinese economy is the current production powerhouse of the region. The key questions which abound though are, given the stranglehold of the government on the economy - what are its true statistics in terms of growth and so forth and can the government hold domestic political aspirations in check whilst continuing an export-led growth model and whether such a model can be sustained in the long term.
China will become more susceptible to economic shocks as it becomes even more integrated into the world economy through the purchase of more foreign goods and as it develops an even greater reliance on externally supplied resources and energy possibly through the eventual adoption of a more flexible currency.

Future nature of warfare

Warfare will remain centred upon the concept of large scale conventional inter-state engagements, with regional powers maintaining forces to reflect this role.
Low intensity warfare, although regionally present, remains restricted to small regions, and locally focused groups with little opportunity for expansion into a region wide problem.
Nuclear conflict remains an issue, with "vertical" proliferation of nuclear forces, especially in relations to the Korean Peninsula likely to continue. However, "horizontal" proliferation, will remain limited, largely being utilised as a complimentary measure to those states which maintain large conventional militaries. Developed states such as Japan and Australia are unlikely to develop domestic nuclear capabilities, due to domestic political issues and the likely continued protection under the US nuclear umbrella.

Technological development of forces will likely play a key role within the framework of conventional "leviathan" based war. The militarisation of space and C4ISTAR will be employed to complement and enhance existing conventional forces, and concepts such as "Cyber-war" are unlikely to develop into independent modes of conflict, instead being utilised as part of a conventional effort, or being restricted to intelligence activities outside of "war". Space and C4ISTAR access (and denial) will be crucial force enablers in any conflict in the region. In a major crisis the United States' military's space capabilities will play a major role in deciding who knows what and in how timely a manner. China has taken the view that blunting, by actual or implied capability, US force projection assets will slow American engagement in the region. Regional powers will seek to maintain their large conventional forces, updating these, where possible with modern equipment from domestic suppliers and abroad, particularly Russia.

North Korea's rusting military will become ever more obsolete, perhaps prompting economic reforms in order to finance modernization. The regime could counterbalance this deficiency with the deployment of more effective surface to surface missiles, or the development of better trained and equipped, and more sizable special forces. The North's embryonic nuclear arsenal is likely to be developed to the point where it becomes a viable land based missile based capability.

The Chinese military will be increasingly modernised, with the gradual replacement of much of the PLA's older Cold War equipment with more modern equivalents, but given the size of the Chinese forces, this will take decades.
Japan, if provoked enough, and if lead by a strong and decisive government with the two thirds majority required, may attempt to reform the 1947 "peace constitution". This will be challenging though, and a more likely course of action would be a maintenance of the current constitution with modification if necessary to allow the gradual development of a stronger navy, possibly including aircraft carriers, in response to China's development of a true blue water navy.
South Korea will possibly abandon conscription if faced with a less belligerent North, but will develop a more powerful navy and supporting base structure in the face of Chinese naval expansion.

Impact on National Trajectories of Regional Actors

North Korea will be a bystander in any regional conflict it does not initiate and a backwater in terms of economic prospects unless it accepts Chinese offers of aid and assistance in developing its economy on a Chinese model. The DPRK's nuclear weapons program will continue until an effective and practicable weapon is produced and/or until the point it is abandoned for major aid / security guarantees.

The US will seek to maintain its "hub and spoke" regional bilateral alliances and may focus more on Asia as involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq reduces. It seems likely that the US will seek to at least maintain its military advantage over the PRC and may embark on future military expansion in order to do so. If faced with clear decline and a rising China the US, may opt to increasingly retreat from world affairs, adopting what could be described as a "neo-isolationism".

South East Asia will become increasingly developed and will benefit as as China becomes too expensive for companies seeking to outsource, but the sub-region will continue to be afflicted by border disputes and possible resource conflict over minerals and agricultural products, and other commodities such as water if the Mekong and other major rivers continue to be dammed.
Taiwan, if conditions are right and the population and politicians are convinced of the decline of US, may shift to bandwagoning with the PRC.
Japan will continue its alliance with the US and will likely draw even closer to its key ally. As stated above Japan may try to amend its constitution but it is more likely to strengthen its conventional forces within the existing Self Defence Forces system. If abandoned by a declining US, Japan may also turn inward in the face of China's rise, beginning what some analysts term a "new Edo period".

South Korea will probably continue its policy of promoting free trade and may further improve its relations with the West and become Europe and America's preferred economic partner in the region, especially if Japan turns inward. This will assist the ROK to win both trade and investment from both the West and China and could be highly beneficial if South Korea can convince both power blocs to compete for its investment opportunities, and ultimately, allegiance.

Australia and New Zealand will continue to bandwagon with the US, and may also seek to expand their armed forces in the face of Chinese military expansion. In the case of Australia, this desire to counter the Chinese threat may be tempered somewhat as China increasingly becomes the main purchaser of the raw materials upon which most of the profitable sectors of the Australian economy are based.



With a growth in Chinese domestic consumption, and a rebalancing of their trade surplus the integration of regional economies will be accelerated. Globalisation will be further advanced with the growth of these regional economies which aim at exporting to China. This will develop economic and social links.

Economic integration of, and development of 'rogue' or authoritarian states may soften approaches to international politics, this could result in further regional and global stability, prompting further economic and social integration and development.
In the longer term, the development of underdeveloped economies will contribute to global economic rebalancing. These states develop prosperous "middle" classes as a result of development based on exports to China, and the export/import of currently "Chinese" jobs. This in turn will increase their own imports as these new prosperity builds demand of foreign imports and goods produced in developed states.


The increased integration of economies, both regionally and globally as a result of economic rebalancing in China, represents a potentially destabilising political influence to key regional powers, which maintain authoritarian regimes. Unless these regimes can tightly control political and social exchange, without limiting economic activity, the resulting instability could, at worst, result in revolution, and possible civil war, with global and regional ramifications.

The imperative to limit social and political exchange at all costs for states such as the DPRK, and to a lesser extent Myanmar and others, may cause them to abandon global integration of their economies.

Chinese growth may fuel a sharper rise in tensions with the US. With economic development, China will not only have the means to more easily expand and develop its "hard power" capabilities, it will also have an increased interest in utilising this power to secure vital energy and raw material supply, and to influence the politics of regional friends and rivals.


China continues to remain politically stable, avoiding political liberalisation, whilst maintaining economic prosperity and a desire for continued growth.

This forecast remains dependent upon the assumption that no major political changes will occur in the characters of certain regimes, in particular China and the DPRK.

That the US will maintain its current policy of global engagement and desire to remain as a global hegemon. This desire will dictate the character of relations between states located in the regional "blocs". Should the US withdraw or significantly reduce its regional presence and interest, this may facilitate significant changes in relations between states. Potentially US withdraw could re-draw the political map.

That no major regional or global conflict takes place within the sort or medium term. Whist this future could conceivably whether a small limited engagement, a major conflict would at the very least change participants' interests in economic integration.


Dr Thomas French is Research Co-ordinator, UK Defence Forum. This article first appeared on Defence Viewpoints.


28 September 2011 



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Harry Kazianis, Will the Eagle's Loss Be the Dragon's Gain?

Jacob Hershey, Taming the Dragon