Peer reviewed analysis from world leading experts

Peering into the gloom of East Asia’s future

Reading Time: 5 mins

In Brief

The first pivot to Asia in recent times was an intellectual one in the years immediately following the end of the Cold War. When the academic and policy world pondered an international landscape devoid of the superpower standoff, two points of strong consensus emerged fairly quickly. First, the end of the Cold War made the world much safer. Second, within this generally positive assessment, East Asia loomed as the region likely to experience both the strongest economic growth and the greatest relative turbulence on the security front.


  • A
  • A
  • A


  • A
  • A
  • A

The features of East Asia in the early 1990s that drove this consensus included the coincidence of rising and declining powers, an abundance of outstanding border and/or sovereignty disputes, a welter of still-intense historical animosities, and a weak to non-existent regional propensity to address issues collegiately in multilateral forums.

It may have been academe’s finest hour. Over the past 25 years, East Asia has realised expectations that it would become the world’s new economic centre of gravity. Economic interdependence developed strongly and generated compelling instincts of common interests and regional cohesion. These positive forces were supplemented by a consistent endeavour to develop stronger multilateral processes. In fact, however, these transformational developments have also led to, or been accompanied by, an intensifying disquiet on the strategic and security front that, in the broadest sense, is proving to be the equal of the forces pulling the region together.

Broad net assessments of disparate constructive and disruptive forces are fraught with risk. One suspects, however, that most observers today would be inclined toward the judgement that, at best, East Asia has managed a draw over the past 25 years: one does not have the sense that East Asia today is characterised by expectations of peaceful change that are either alarmingly weaker or encouragingly stronger than was the case in the early 1990s. In short, we are not winning.

The US–China relationship lies at the heart of this issue. If this relationship continues to slip toward mutually accepted adversity and antagonism, it can be expected to decisively darken the outlook for East Asia and, indeed, beyond. The debate on order and stability in East Asia since the mid-1990s has taken as given that the United States and China would have to arrive at a new accommodation of some kind. For too long, however, the mainstream debate was conducted with this accommodation as a future prospect. A great deal of that accommodation was natural and has already occurred. China’s influence and authority has blossomed, closely tracking its spectacular economic and trade performance. And this process still has some distance to travel, perhaps another 25 years, before we again see relative stability in the economic weight of the major players. By that time, China will be easily the largest economy in the world, with only India having even the potential to match it.

It seems clear that both the United States and China have been conscious that some overt management of their intersection in East Asia would sooner or later be prudent. China, having the momentum of the rising power, has naturally preferred to deflect and defer US endeavours to strive for more explicit understandings, the Bush administration’s 2005 ‘responsible stakeholder’ proposal being a case in point. The United States has found it difficult to step away from the vision it has of its role in East Asian affairs, notwithstanding the devastating trilogy of events — 9/11, regime change in Iraq and the global financial crisis — that so diminished its poise, confidence and capabilities. Equally, China has found it hard to sustain its preferred image of a new model major power devoid of hegemonic aspirations and committed to stability and reassurance, succumbing periodically to the temptations to use its newly acquired power and influence to accelerate the acquisition of more.

Peering into the gloom of the immediate future does not offer strong reassurance. It could be argued that there has been some stepping back as regional states sought to defuse the rash of disturbing developments that unfolded over the period 2009–12. It has to be acknowledged, however, that this was only the latest, albeit the worst, period of deterioration in regional order since the end of the Cold War. We cannot easily dismiss the possibility that this is not a dependable turn for the better but at best a pause in what could become a prolonged phase in which regional affairs are dominated by geopolitical competition between the United States and China.

US–China competition in the regional security arena certainly appears to be increasingly unstable. Moreover, the countervailing forces embodied in economic interdependence may have peaked and could weaken appreciably over time, under the combined pressure of a more complex regulatory environment and the continuing high risk of loss of intellectual property. Political and strategic actors in the region have been at pains to signal their awareness of the ominous historical record when dealing with transformations like that underway in the region and their confident determination to preclude any replays. The region’s statesmen would be well advised to regard strengthening the foundations of that confidence as unfinished business.

Ron Huisken is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University. This article is based on the author’s introduction to the CSCAP Regional Security Outlook 2014. The full document can be viewed here.

Comments are closed.

Support Quality Analysis

The East Asia Forum office is based in Australia and EAF acknowledges the First Peoples of this land — in Canberra the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people — and recognises their continuous connection to culture, community and Country.

Article printed from East Asia Forum (

Copyright ©2024 East Asia Forum. All rights reserved.