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Trilateral powers: Defining the interests of China, Japan, and the US in the ASEAN

Updated on May 30, 2016

The principle of balance of power is just around the corner and can strike the most powerful country in the world at any time. At the present, though, the United States can safely say that its place as a superpower is meant to last, especially since the country has used not only territorial acquisitions as a tool for domination but also, and perhaps even especially, cultural and educational domination in the form of spreading its principal ideals and societal standards. Closely aligned with US is the Asian power Japan, which used to be one of the potential superpowers a few decades ago. US– Japan relations are now stronger than ever; some scholars even go as far as saying that Japan is the “Great Britain of Asia”, or a competitor turned ally for America. The objective reason behind the strong relationship between the two is rather expected: the rise of China. China has recovered substantially from the losses it has incurred during the communist revolution and the large country has already surpassed Japan in being recognized as the most plausible potential threat to US domination.

These three powers move across transnational borders, however, in the search for a concrete and well-defined domain it has turned its attention to the Southeast Asian territories. A quick look at history shows that the region has been a battle-ground for imperial wars. Japan has occupied almost all the member countries during the Second World War, with the occupations reaching its peak during 1941-1942. Japan-Southeast Asian relations in the post-World War 2 era has tended to prioritize economic and trade relations, a manifestation of the Japanese strategy of attempting to regain its potential of being an economic superpower.

The United States, on the other hand, has a long history of spreading colonization dating as far back as when the country first gained independence in the 18th century. The 19th century was witness to the numerous attempted (and succeeded) territorial acquisitions of the then-emerging empire. By the time of the early 20th century, it was already an established major player in the imperial world. However, the US was unlike any of the Old Empires of the world then. It has always championed the idea of “democracy” wherever it went. Along with democracy was the self-assigned mission of “world responsibility”, asserting that it was destined to act as a global police. Its national interests in some of its former colonies were retained (the Philippines, for example) and enemies during wartime have now become close allies (i.e. Japan). The US military also has bases and rotational exercises throughout Asia and the Pacific.

In the scene comes China, which after the Second World War underwent societal reconstruction in the face of Mao’s leadership. The triumph of communism was, however, short-lived. Failure attributed to a multitude of factors caused China’s socialist empire to collapse. Nationalists regained power, and national interests were put in the top of every list. International relations were once again deemed priority; it reestablished bilateral and multilateral communications and partnerships. For some countries, China’s approach has been friendly. However, for most especially Japan and some Southeast Asian countries, the growing economy has been hostile. China greeted them with territorial claims, some of which are valid and some not. This whole issue of territorial disputes has contributed to a shift in the balance of power in Asia. Although not all territorial claims are settled in favor of China, its attempt at doing so is a signal for its power. Surprisingly, the country still engages in trade efforts with SEA members, and is active in pursuing economic superiority.

To put all of this in the context of ASEAN is a different story altogether. The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) was formed in 1967 by the foreign ministers of five countries: Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. Its primary objective was to foster “cooperation among southeast Asian countries to prevent the entry of negative influence from the outside.”[1] The formation of the organization was a response to the threat of outside control of the region from powers interested in using the individual country’s resources for themselves. Therefore, aside from economic integration, ASEAN was geared towards strong regionalism in Southeast Asia. While it has succeeded in expanding its membership, the control of the association must also be reviewed.

All three countries currently have formal negotiations with the ASEAN and also among themselves. US involvement in Southeast Asia and the Pacific is a primary objective for America. President Obama himself said that the lack of budget for defense shall not be at the expense of Pacific control.[2] Vested interest in SEA is a common objective for these three superpowers. China has shown this in its multiple territorial claim i.e. maritime disputes. Japan, on the other hand, is a calmer outside power, appearing to be interested only in the continuance and improvement of trade relations with the region.

Modern US – China cooperation can be traced back to during the Cold War Era, following the unexpected animosity of the Soviet Union to China, which at the time was also claiming to be a socialist state.[3] A common enemy (USSR) was the objective reason for their cooperation back then. At the present post-Cold War era, however, China poses a threat to the American superiority. China’s territorial disputes are evidence to its increasing influence in Southeast Asian affairs. The fact that its claims hold some degree of validity is a signal of its power in the region.[4]

While it may be too aggressive to call the trilateral interests of US, China, and Japan in the ASEAN a form of imperial domination, it can be inferred that it is leaning towards a mild form of this in the sense that the three countries are pursuing their interests both individually and by working with other superpowers. Diplomatic relations can be seen as a new tool for imperial domination, and can be used to work with potential colonies (or neo-colonies) or potential partnerships with nations on par with the level of power of a country.


[1] From the Official Website of the ASEAN; Retrieved from http://www.asean.org/asean/about-asean/history

[2] BBC, “Barack Obama says Asia-Pacific is ‘Top Priority’,” BBC (November 17, 2011)

[3] USSR had some territorial disputes with China during the Cold War despite the ideological sameness of the countries

[4] A country with no significant degree of influence will not be taken seriously if it had any territorial claims

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