The geopolitical landscape in Asia

Asia is a region with growing political and economic significance to the world. Its rapidly expanding economy is now contributing to two-thirds of global growth and accounts for nearly 40 percent of global output. Politically, Asia is home to the world’s emerging power, China, which challenges America’s dominance. Terrorist cells within Asia are closely linked to terorrism beyond the region and the territorial dispute in the South China Sea threatens the global movement of trade. However, these worldwide ramifications are threatened by geopolitical tensions as the United States balances against China’s expanding influence in Asia’s own backyard. Here in ilgeopolitico, we inform political debates by anticipating changes in Asia’s strategic landscape against the background of major power tensions.

Figure1: geopolitical maritime dispute in Asia. Source:

Since the end of the Second World War and the implosion of the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War, the United States has enjoyed a certain kind of hegemonic role in the unipolar international system. However, the emergence of other powers such as China forces a shift towards a system of multiple powers as American predominance confronts a slow decline. The international system is now anticipating an uncertain future, as smaller states are now faced with the option to seek security with other countries aside from the United States. As the world moves towards an unstable balance of power, Asia is the main witness to this change as the tension between the United States and China influences regional issues and threatens stability.

The main geopolitical issue within Asia is the maritime dispute over the South China Sea. While five claimant states compete for territorial rights and access to rich oil and gas resources under the seabed, China encompasses these claims by asserting rights over nearly 80 percent of the entire sea. The United States is also a party to this dispute through extending subtle political support to some claimant states. However, the United States insists that it does not have territorial claims and is only interested in protecting the freedom of navigation and the safety passage of ships along the region’s sea lines of communication. This can be translated as another way of asserting the US geopolitical interest to prevent China from taking control over the South China Sea and expanding China’s regional clout. The maritime competition in South China Sea now takes place between China and the claimant states in the form of legal proceedings, harsh rhetorical exchanges and the occassional skirmish at sea. While China engages in bilateral negotiations with the claimant states, the United States continues to conduct joint military exercises and multilateral dialogue to deter China from any aggressive behaviour.

On the economic front, the United States and China are competing for the status as Asia’s preferred trade partner. While the United States offers a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade pact to the region, China is countering America’s efforts with a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) package. China is also broadening its economic appeal through establishing regional institutions that offer enciting development packages, such as the Asian Development Bank and the One Belt, One Road development strategy.

While competition between these major powers unfold, the balance of power in Asia is threatened by non-traditional challenges such as terrorism. Deep domestic terrorist cells rooted in Indonesia and the Philippines are developing extended links with terrorist groups beyond the region. This has culminated in terrorist attacks like the Jakarta Bombings in January 2016, which ISIS claimed responsibility for. Despite having limited resources, Asia’s enforcement agencies are now pressured to engage in closer regional cooperation to prevent future terrorist attacks and avoid more civilian deaths.

Another concern lies in the crisis of nuclear proliferation in Northeast Asia. Home to Japan, South Korea, North Korea and China, the existence of Northeast Asia is constantly on the cusp of a nuclear attack. North Korea continues to provoke its neighbours through repeated threats of launching its nuclear weapons if its sovereignty is not respected. Although North Korea has yet to follow through with its threat, its nature as a reclusive state but the verified presence of nuclear armaments within the country makes North Korea a difficult state to understand and engage with. The international community, including the United States, continues to pursue Six Party Talks in order to reduce North Korea’s nuclear proliferation, but there is little success. The world is therefore dependent on China’s crucial role, as North Korea’s only ally, to influence North Korea’s foreign policy and reduce the level of nuclear weapons on the region.

Geopolitical competition between the United States and China in Asia is most present in the efforts taken by each power to develop close security partners in the region. This has ramifications for the wider regional security landscape, as illustrated in the failure of the 10-member nations ASEAN group to agree on a joint communique on how to deal with China’s claims in the South China Sea in 2012. Later analysis argues that this failure is due in part to China’s strong economic and political influence in Cambodia, which drove Cambodia to prevent ASEAN from reaching an agreement. Meanwhile, the United States is making inroads in gaining a stronger foothold in the region by strongly supporting the democratisation process of countries such as Myanmar. By dropping economic sanctions and providing democracy assistance to Myanmar, the United States is weaning Myanmar away from its dependence on China. In return, the United States gains a strong regional partner in Myanmar.

As the region’s global significance grows, Asia is unlike any region as it will continue to attract geopolitical competition from major powers. While the United States and China vie for a larger share of the Asian pie, we can expect growing tensions between major powers but also stronger cooperation amongst the regional countries. Ilgeopolitico plays an important role in providing a platform that discusses current and future patterns of geopolitical change in Asia. We inform both academic and policy debates, and shape perspectives.

Dott.ssa Asyura Salleh

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