Cover: Regional Responses to U.S.-China Competition in the Indo-Pacific

Regional Responses to U.S.-China Competition in the Indo-Pacific


Published Nov 12, 2020

by Scott W. Harold


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Research Questions

  1. What are Japan's interests and existing engagements in Southeast Asia?
  2. How does Japan view China, and to what extent does it seek to compete with China?
  3. To what extent is Japan open to broader and deeper cooperation and coordination with the United States to compete with China?
  4. To the extent that Japan is open to working with the United States to counter Chinese influence in the Southeast Asian region, what possible steps could the allies take to deepen cooperation and more effectively counter China's ambitions there?

The 2017 U.S. National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy summary describe a world characterized by a return to great-power competition, most notably with China in the Indo-Pacific region. America's enduring alliance with Japan not only is the cornerstone of U.S. force posture in the Indo-Pacific region, but also magnifies and bolsters U.S. influence across that vast swath of territory. Within the region, Southeast Asian countries have been particularly exposed to China's expanding influence and coercive diplomacy in recent years, making the ten countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) a key focus for U.S. national strategy and the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) in particular.

The author leverages a framework that RAND developed for a seven-part series on regional responses to U.S.-China competition, with this report focusing on Japan's perspective. This report assesses the prospects for deepening U.S.-Japan alliance cooperation and coordination in Southeast Asia through 2030 to compete with China. It surveys official Japanese documents, draws on a wide variety of secondary source analyses, and reports the results of more than 25 face-to-face interviews with Japanese defense and foreign policy officials, military officers, think-tank analysts, and academic specialists.

Key Findings

The outlook for regional position and partnerships appears to be very strong

  • Over the next five to ten years, the importance of the U.S. alliance to Japan is virtually impossible to overstate. Japan's defense engagement with China, by contrast, is virtually nonexistent and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future.
  • With respect to Southeast Asia, Japan enjoys a largely positive overall image, and there is a high degree of acceptance of the proposition that Japan should do more to engage with ASEAN nations, especially in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam.
  • U.S. and Japanese efforts to bolster the autonomy of ASEAN states, both individually and as a bloc, by providing them with diplomatic, legal, and other forms of support; assisting them in developing the capacity to monitor and police their waters and airspace; and working to bolster their resilience to and recovery from natural disasters (among other efforts) will help focus on the values and interests that the United States, Japan, and ASEAN have in common.
  • Signposts that might indicate that the region is developing in a direction that is welcoming of more U.S.-Japan security and defense cooperation could include increases in tensions between China and key regional players, such as Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam, over competing territorial and/or maritime claims.


  • The U.S. government should consider strengthening defense and security cooperation with Japan in Southeast Asia by understanding that leveraging the U.S.-Japan alliance to compete with China in Southeast Asia requires "winning the peace," not trying to sell Southeast Asian nations on the need to gear up to fight a war with China, and by jointly articulating a policy framework built around ASEAN centrality and the values of autonomy, capacity, and resiliency that Southeast Asians will find attractive.
  • DoD and the U.S. Air Force should consider framing U.S.-Japan security cooperation in Southeast Asia around assistance designed to deal with humanitarian disasters, transnational nonstate threats, and air and maritime sovereignty. Where possible, consider engaging with Japan in planning and exercising humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations focused on responding to a crisis in Southeast Asia.
  • DoD and the U.S. Air Force should consider expanding professional military education opportunities for Southeast Asian nations in the United States and Japan and exploring opportunities to work with Japan to shape regional militaries through assistance programs focused on building partner capacity.
  • DoD and the U.S. Air Force should consider using information-sharing along with exchanges focused on the international laws and regulations governing air and maritime spaces to publicly highlight China's problematic behavior in the South China Sea and elsewhere, as well as the rights ASEAN states enjoy and their policy options.

Research conducted by

The research reported here was sponsored by Brig Gen Michael P. Winkler (PACAF/A5/8) and conducted within the Strategy and Doctrine Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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