While China's Regional Influence Grows, U.S. Remains Key Security and Economic Partner in East Asia

For Release

November 17, 2008

China is not eroding the foundations of U.S. alliances in East Asia and the United States remains the security partner of choice in the region. But consistent U.S. efforts are needed to ensure that the nation retains its influence, according to a RAND Corporation study issued today.

The study finds that America's key East Asian allies do not see China as a viable strategic alternative to the United States and that allied nations seek to broaden economic and diplomatic relations with both the United States and China.

The report, "Pacific Currents: The Responses of U.S. Allies and Security Partners in East Asia to China's Rise," examines how six countries – Australia, Japan, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea and Thailand – are reacting to China's growing involvement and influence in East Asia.

"What is not occurring in Asia is as important as what is happening," said Evan Medeiros, lead author of the report and a senior political scientist at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. "East Asia is not falling under China's dominion. U.S. allies are not climbing onto a Chinese bandwagon in expectation of its eventual hegemony."

Moreover, Medeiros says, East Asia nations are not expanding or modernizing their armed forces in order to balance Chinese power, but are watching Chinese military modernization with varying degrees of concern. Many are tightening their existing alliance links with the United States and diversifying their security relationships with each other.

China is undoubtedly gaining influence among all six East Asian nations, but in a limited way and of a certain type. China looms larger in the policy decisions of all these nations.

However, the influence China is gaining is a passive variety of influence that involves nations not taking certain actions deemed to be provocative to China. The report argues that China has not gained "offensive" influence, with which it could attenuate alliance relationships or otherwise marginalize U.S. influence. When China has tried to assert itself in such ways, its efforts often have been counterproductive, alienating its Asian interlocutors instead.

A key finding of the report is that none of America's East Asian allies want to have to choose between the United States and China, not even the United States' closest Asian security partners. They all see such a choice as a worst-case scenario, to be avoided at all costs.

America's regional allies are seeking to maximize their maneuvering room by positioning themselves to benefit from ties with both the United States and China on a range of economic and security issues.

U.S. allies see China mainly as presenting important economic opportunities and, thus, are rapidly expanding their economic links with China. There is a pervasive and compelling economic logic to these bilateral relationships. However, for some, trade with China is not an unqualified good; it has damaged certain sectors of their economies, producing both economic winners and losers.

Thus, several East Asian nations are now moving out of the honeymoon phase with China. They recognize the costs and complexities involved in managing multidimensional relationships with China. While, on balance, many view stable relations with China as central to their economic livelihood, China is not uniformly seen as reliable or predictable.

Ultimately, the study finds that China's reemergence in East Asia has made the United States more relevant in the region. Nations can confidently engage China precisely because security commitments and economic relations with the United States endure.

Key implications for the United States include:

  • U.S. Asia policy remains a key variable in how U.S. allies react to China's growing regional influence. For allies, as long as the United States remains a major economic actor and security guarantor, the regional responses to the rise of China can be taken with confidence and moderation. These nations watch U.S. policy closely in calculating interactions with China and other Asian powers.
  • There is consistent desire in East Asia for the United States to remain a key economic actor and security guarantor in the region; the reactions documented in the RAND study reflect a general satisfaction with the role the United States plays, albeit with differing levels of dissatisfaction about U.S. international and regional diplomacy.
  • It is early in East Asia's response to China's growing weight in regional affairs. The region is still coming to terms with China's expanding involvement in Asian political, social, economic and security affairs.
  • Given the historic centrality of the United States to Asian security affairs (at least in the last 50 years) and the U.S. role as a provider of critical public goods to the region, the United States has both the time and space necessary for responding effectively to the challenges posed by regional reactions to China's rise.
  • There is still abundant geopolitical space for the United States to grow its Asian security relationships in support of a regional security order marked by cooperation among several regional powers, but in which none of them dominates.
  • It is not in U.S. interests to take a highly competitive approach to China's security alliances and partnerships in East Asia. Washington must remain sensitive to the changing levels of cooperation between China and East Asian allies.
  • A one-size-fits-all approach to East Asia will not work. The United States must tailor its policies to meet the individual needs and national interests of its allies and security partners in the region.
Other authors of the study are Keith Crane, Eric Heginbotham, Angel Rabasa and Norm Levin of RAND. The report, "Pacific Currents: The Responses of U.S. Allies and Security Partners in East Asia to China's Rise," is available at www.rand.org.

The study was prepared by RAND Project AIR FORCE, a federally funded research and development center for studies and analysis aimed at providing independent policy alternatives for the U.S. Air Force.

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