On the northern tier of Asia, rethinking about geopolitics centers on three arenas. The first is the Sino-Russian nexus looking outward, particularly at the US role in Asia but also at linkages in which this bilateral relationship is enmeshed. The second is the Korean Peninsula, framed by South Korea as the centerpiece for regional reorganization. Finally, Japan has emerged as an alternate source of reconceptualization of regional dynamics, wrestling as well with the fallout of the deterioration in Sino-US relations. Developments in 2020 have put the spotlight on the double whammy of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Sino-US cold war and decoupling. What frameworks are emerging to comprehend what is taking shape as the new structure in Asia?    

Of late, the emphasis in thinking across Asia’s northern tier about the nature of the regional order has centered on maneuvering around the US-led liberal international economic order and US hub-and-spokes alliance system. Japan and South Korea are searching for autonomy within the US-led order, while strongly supporting reaffirmation of the US presence. China, Russia, and North Korea are striving for a way to break away from that order, although differing on what is the best way to replace it. Far-reaching events in 2020 and the intensification of Sino-US rivalry call into question the frameworks used to conceptualize how the regional environment is taking shape. It is time to consider, in the light of how national debates were evolving in recent years, the impact of developments in the first half of 2020 on the frameworks under consideration.

Observers are closely familiar with the frameworks advocated by US policymakers, even their contradictory nature, which many correctly note. There is a tendency to misjudge, however, the main alternative frameworks coming from countries in Asia. Overemphasis on bilateral ties to the US and on the overly positive depiction of them for official purposes by US allies can leave a misleading impression. The tendency to concentrate on Sino-US and Russo-US relations likewise has the effect of obfuscating how many visualize their place in Asia, which is exacerbated by the censorship in some countries about their bilateral ties and negative receptivity to their policies.

In this Special Forum we concentrate on thinking in China, Russia, South Korea, and Japan, even as we showcase dichotomous choices with relevance to other cases. We begin with brief notice of outlooks in these four countries before highlighting the alternative themes raised in each of the three articles. The deterioration of Sino-US relations serves as a shared background while a difficult and drawn-out recovery from the pandemic adds a measure of uncertainty for authors.

Multipolarity is not limited to China and Russia

Japan aspired to leadership in Asia in the 1980s, imagining a three-centered world of the United States, the European Union, and Japan. Although it rarely raised the notion of multipolarity, soon reaffirmed US leadership in security as well as wariness of China as rival for leadership, and then a danger of seizing leadership for itself, Japan kept searching for some degree of autonomy. The idea spread that a declining US would share leadership in Asia with Japan in a triangle meant to constrain China’s drive for hegemony and appeal to multilateralism as an equal to the US in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) initiative, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), and the effort to engage Russia. This is a kind of multipolarity-light, heavily reliant on the US not disengaging much and China failing to rise too rapidly. It is long on middle and small powers working together and shifting on what to do about strengthening Sino-Russian ties. By the end of the 2010s, hopes centered on drawing India close, wooing Russia to distant it some from China, and even appealing to China to keep ties from growing worse. Accepting a degree of bipolarity, Japan sought some multipolarity too.

South Korea considered multipolarity essential for solving the North Korea question. Like Japan, it did not dare to prompt US alarm. The ideal—under conservative or progressive leadership—was a Sino-US balance with neither pressuring Seoul to pick sides. Russia focused on the economic benefits of joining with Seoul in appealing to Pyongyang, and Japan stayed peripheral and following the US lead. All of these states should prioritize ending the cold war in Northeast Asia, but as the southern tier of Asia grew more tense Seoul sought to engage without offending. This was also multipolarity-light, more than Tokyo counting on limiting Sino-US confrontation.

India is the most obvious supporter of multipolarity among Asian middle and great powers other than Russia and China. In this way, it could rise as a great power pursued by others and sustain its strategic autonomy. Moscow has urged Delhi to think this way. The problem is that in light of China’s rapid ascent staying on the sidelines with its own power rising much more slowly does not look appealing. Instead, Japan’s case for drawing closer to the US and middle powers to keep China from dominating is persuasive along with the plan to retain Russia as a partner as long as it does not shift too completely to China’s side. India’s notion of multipolarity has many voices, but it is vulnerable to pushback to China’s behavior, raising the US profile.

Japan, South Korea, and India could, in theory, join in support for multipolarity. ASEAN might serve as a catalyst on which they agreed. Yet the forces of bipolarity, driven mostly by China, are erasing multipolar options, and ASEAN is too weak to manage great power differences. There is no common ground for dealing with China’s rise, Sino-US tensions, and leadership questions. Japan is flexible in accepting bipolarity as the main trend, South Korea is struggling to avoid such a choice, and India has so far the luxury of not being forced to choose.


Having earlier called for multipolarity and even for a time accepted ASEAN centrality, China has increasingly stopped disguising the Sinocentric nature of the framework is seeks to build. First, it pursues its own hub-and-spokes agenda through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), recently being extended to Northeast Asia. Second, it demands deference on issues associated with its “core interests,” including this summer’s National Security Law for Hong Kong. Third, China is emboldened to push harder to marginalize the United States in East Asia, through anti-access military deployments and wedge-driving with US allies and partners. In this process, it seeks to continue to find common ground with its foremost ally Russia despite differing frameworks.

Separately, I have argued that Xi Jinping has an overall strategy toward Northeast Asia, which from 2017 differed sufficiently from his earlier approach to warrant the label Xi 2.0. While Xi may take Vladimir Putin for granted as the bedrock of his Northeast Asia strategy, there remain challenges, such as the resurfacing of irredentist language over territory in the Russian Far East, arrogance that relegates Russia to a junior partner, and denigration of multipolarity, on which Russians had counted. If Xi’s framework for the region is implicit, its contours are now clearer.

China’s framework has aggravated Sino-US relations, aroused distrust across Asia, and clashed with each of the other frameworks for the region. It seeks to exclude the US, marginalize Japan, use North Korea to subordinate South Korea, and hold Russia on a short leash while feigning an equal strategic partnership. China is the driving force to which all of the other states must react.


The consistent mantra of Russian leaders has been multipolarity, until 2020 when it proved hard to sustain. Two guiding assumptions throughout were that the United States was in decline and China is on the rise but not so fast as to deny room for Russia to maneuver with other partners, while giving its support to China. Events in 2020 with the US in freefall and China little fettered in its assertiveness stunned Russians into acknowledging the reality of bipolarity, although they tried to salvage room for their country to maneuver. The search for a framework to replace multipolarity had begun. Greater Eurasia is the preferred overall rubric now that docking the EEU and BRI has fallen out of favor.

While Japan and the Korean Peninsula at times figured into multipolarity discussions, ASEAN had a more lasting position with Vietnam in the forefront and India has had the principal place. In mid-2020 it is alarm about Sino-Indian relations that is straining the credibility of what is left of multipolarity. If China is viewed as the aggressor on the Sino-Indian border, Russia may be forced to choose sides. It has put all of its eggs in China’s basket but has reason to fear China’s intentions on the Sino-Russian border and the loss of all hope for leverage in Greater Eurasia.   

South Korea

Despite proclaiming its New Southern Strategy, Seoul remains obsessed with Northeast Asia and, within that, on the Korean Peninsula. Its preference is for first a rapprochement with Pyongyang and then an understanding with the United States and China welcoming it and giving encouragement to Japan and Russia to stay on the sidelines. Recognizing that Kim Jong-un is not amenable to an inter-Korean breakthrough, Moon Jae-in has opted for US involvement to try to change his mind. This approach posed three undeniable problems. First, Kim and Trump could not find common ground. Second, Xi Jinping felt marginalized and repeatedly urged Kim to use a different approach while pressing Moon to involve China more. Third, Seoul left Tokyo and Moscow uninvested in the diplomatic process and more alienated from it.

With the breakdown in Sino-US relations in 2020, South Korea’s desired framework is proving more elusive. Instead of becoming the engine of regional reorganization, it is left at the mercy of a tug-of-war as Washington and Beijing up the pressure for Seoul to endorse their agendas for East Asia. The US seeks triangularity with Japan, engagement in the broad FOIP initiative, pushback against China’s aggressive behavior and human rights transgressions, and support for bilateral defense contributions significantly upgraded in scale. China seeks a tilt away from the US alliance toward a balanced triangle, tolerance for no more than a narrow defense alliance to deter North Korea, and distance from any security integration with Japan. Seoul is struggling to sustain its own ideal framework in the face of acceleration of these pressures.


Countries that have raised their hopes about multipolarity in Asia or at least a substantial degree of autonomy in foreign policy are facing the challenge of Sino-US polarization. In this context, each is tempted to explore a framework that would allow some leverage within the bipolar environment. The framework emerging in Japan is wide-ranging (Indo-Pacific), alliance-based but not hub-and-spokes (multi-directional), and limited in isolating China (containment-light). It builds on thinking that has evolved decade-by-decade from the 1980s. Geographically, it ranges from the Sino-US-Japan triangle to Greater China, the Indian Ocean, and Northeast Asia. Although it is specific to Japan, it has broader relevance to states reliant on Japan’s clout.   

Abe has attempted a balancing act: on the one hand, to cling as closely to Trump as possible; on the other, to pursue summitry with Xi Jinping on the basis of some understanding on regional economic cooperation and the limits of rivalry. In 2019, this appeared to work: Trump visited Japan in successive months to acclaim, and Xi was scheduled to make a once-in-a-decade state visit in the spring of 2020 with an upbeat agenda. In December 2019 Abe stopped in Beijing for a warm meeting with Xi (a contrast to Moon Jae-in’s meeting) just prior to the Chengdu China-Japan-Korea summit. Although China was putting pressure on other leaders to bend to its will, Abe found room to maneuver. By mid-2020, policy options toward China had narrowed. If Xi’s visit was postponed due to the pandemic, media coverage gave the impression that conditions for a summit that would not descend into acrimony had not been met. More volatile issues had risen to the fore, including China’s new security law undermining “one country, two systems” in Hong Kong. With Sino-US relations in free fall, Japan could not remain aloof. Japanese media kept up a drumbeat of criticisms of China for its failure in allowing the pandemic to spread.

The dream nurtured from the 1950s was for Japan to combine Asianism with a necessary alliance with the United States. It would develop indispensable economic ties, neutralize past historical antagonisms, and forge political and cultural linkages making it the Asian center of the US alliance and partnership networks. Indeed, both geography and greater affinity with values prevalent in Asia would complement Japan’s growing economic edge over the US in East Asia. In the 1980s optimism grew that Japan would lead its own region, and even after the collapse of the bubble economy the fact that Asian regionalism was on the upswing was taken as a good sign. Although by the 2000s China’s rapid rise led Japan to lean more on the US, the ASEAN served as a surrogate center for a kind of regionalism that still left room to be a bridge with the US. If the ASEAN was losing cohesion and leadership potential, Abe Shinzo saw openings for pro-active diplomacy with one state after another across the Indo-Pacific to serve autonomous diplomacy.

Over time Japanese strategists adjusted the balance of economic leverage, political and military relevance, and national identity appeal in the way Japan pursued regional autonomy. The peak in optimism lasted from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s. This was the period when autonomy from the US appeared most promising. When progressives joined the government, as in the 90s and around 2010, autonomy gained in priority. The bubble economy of the 1980s lingering in its impact into the 1990s was another stimulus to autonomy. Also important was the degree to which the Soviet Union or China loomed as a threat to gain regional dominance. Another factor is the hold of historical memories of Japan’s imperialist behavior as a barrier to building trust.

Gilbert Rozman, “Multipolarity versus Sinocentrism: Chinese and Russian Worldviews and Relations”

Two contradictory images of Sino-Russian relations captivate observers: customary insistence on bonhomie, as both Putin and Xi Jinping proclaim their mutual warmth and act in ways that bring ties to the US to new lows; and new signs of Russian discomfort with China or concern for entanglement in a confrontation with the US and collateral damage from ongoing Sino-Indian clashes. How should we reconcile the clash between these two perspectives? Not fully siding with one or the other viewpoint, this article takes a national identity perspective that supports continued closeness in relations while recognizing the rising impact of assertive Sinocentrism at odds with Russian multipolarity. 

Strong affinity in inherited national identities has undergirded the three-decades long warmth in Sino-Russian relations. Yet core ideological tenets in each country carry the potential to rile their relationship. On the Chinese side, Sinocentrism is an inherent element in national identity, which is gaining force. On the Russian side, there is continued gravitation to multipolarity as a pathway to Russocentrism. Recent developments raise the possibility that these core elements could open a wide gap in identity. Both have been subject to reinterpretation. Chinese thinking on the former has narrowed as Russia’s has broadened. Although both take the Sino-Russo-US triad as the core, China has tended to drop other states and marginalize Russia with bipolarity at the center. Russia began with a troika of Sino-Russian-Indian coordination limiting the United States and adding the ASEAN, Japan, and even a “joint” Korea in an Asia-Pacific-centric framework. For Beijing, India, Japan, and the ASEAN all lost standing; not Russia, needed for appearances to be included even if it was marginalized. For Moscow, as China’s weight grew, other actors were essential to keep at least a semblance of balance. Sinocentrism became broader and deeper over time; China applied it more widely and made greater demands.

The national identity legacy of traditional communism was instrumental in drawing Moscow and Beijing closer in the post-cold war era. Their rigid dogma about ideology had propelled the split lasting three decades to the end of the Cold War, as each gave vent to overconfidence inimical to sustained trust and cooperation. Their affinity during the 1950s was doomed by the irrepressible arrogance of Soviet communism, which was more than matched by the grandiose claims of Mao Zedong. Thus, Russocentrism and Sinocentrism, manifested through talk of ideological purity, undermined the pretense to brotherhood. For the two decades of the 1990s-2000s, other elements of national identity dwarfed both Sinocentrism and Russocentrism. Communism had been stripped of class conflict. The superpower mentality of the Soviet Union had been eclipsed, and Deng Xiaoping had steered China toward a modest quest for economic growth with limited room for Sinocentrism. The negative force of national identity was kept in check, while the centripetal weight of their shared history of communism prevailed. Ideology slipped as a force in identity as both leaderships claimed to prioritize pragmatism.

The mid-2010s saw a sudden spike in Sinocemtrism under Xi Jinping and of Russocentrism at the behest of Vladimir Putin. To some, it seemed as if the very forces that had driven the Sino-Soviet split were now, on the contrary, leading toward a sort of Sino-Russian alliance. Russia’s preoccupation was Europe, notably Ukraine, and China ‘s was maritime Asia from Japan to Taiwan, to the South China Sea, to the extended sea lanes of the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road portion of the Belt and Road Initiative. For the time being, Russians expressed scant concern about Sinocentrism, while Chinese found no reason to express alarm about Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. As China attended to demonstrations in Hong Kong and independence forces in Taiwan, the foreign policies of these two assertive powers appeared complementary.

Reviewing the three decades before 2020, we discern in the 1990s lip-service that only gave an unbelievable illusion of multipolarity; a façade of multipolarity that China took far less seriously than Russia in the 2000s; and a hollowing out of the meager symbols of multipolarity across the Indo-Pacific region by the end of the 2010s. Only in 2020 did Russians face a time of reckoning as the myth of multipolarity in place of bipolarity in today’s Asia could scarcely be sustained. In turn, China’s rhetoric and behavior made Sinocentrism a reality difficult to overlook any longer.

Sino-Russian relations continue to be the prime testing grounds for whether multipolarity is more than a slogan and Sinocentrism not a gamechanger. By agreeing to multipolarity, China offered reassurance to Russia, but doubts have been growing on both sides. The imbalance in national power, the way China is becoming more totalitarian and aggressive, as on the border with India, and signs that Sinocentrism applies to Russia too, do not go unnoticed in Moscow. At the same time, Russian reservations about China soon reverberate in distrust from Beijing of Russia’s reliability. Russian notions of multipolarity are perceived as inconsistent with Xi Jinping 2.0, the view of Northeast Asia expounded since 2018 of prime importance to Russia. What the US does, arguably, matters less for the future of Sino-Russian relations than this identity gap.   

Eun A Jo, “Double Allegiance: Moon Jae-in’s Strategy amid US-China Rivalry”                  

Can a state be a credible ally and still partner closely with its rival? South Korea provides new, albeit preliminary, insights in this respect: its alliance with the United States—though under various strains—has remained resilient even as its ties to China have deepened and US-China relations have deteriorated. This strategy of “double allegiance” is distinctive, even if it is unlikely to be sustainable over the long run, argues Cho. Under a progressive government that prioritizes inter-Korean reconciliation, the predicament is even worse. South Korea needs the cooperation of both the United States and China to push its peace agenda: the former to credibly balance against and the latter to credibly assure the North.

Seoul is pursuing a strategy of “double allegiance,” with two conjoined efforts: delinking from the United States in its regional security architecture without damaging bilateral security commitments, and drawing closer to China in regional cooperation without signaling a serious intent to realign. Seoul remains fixated on recovering the lost momentum of the peace process with the North; this creates pressures for appeasing both parties in the great power rivalry. As the frictions in US-China relations become more acute and South Korea’s room for effective balancing shrinks, Seoul will find itself walking a dangerous tightrope between the two.

Unlike hedgers, South Korea has continued to signal, rather openly, its intention to stay a US ally and simultaneously drawn closer to China in terms of regional cooperation. It aims to maintain its existing bilateral security relationship with the United States as well as deepen regional partnership with China. It is seeking double allegiance as a tactical choice: retaining the US alliance and deepening the Chinese partnership toward a singular goal—improving inter-Korean relations Seoul’s desire to be in the “driver’s seat” in the inter-Korean peace process further incentivizes double allegiance. Moon wants to prevent Korea from becoming a pawn in a larger geostrategic game and to preserve Seoul’s autonomy in shaping the fate of the Korean Peninsula.

Against this backdrop, the Moon administration sees double allegiance as an inevitability rather than an option. The “three nos” policy placed limits on South Korea’s alliance activities and impeded the integration of the US-centered regional security network. Moon’s threat to terminate GSOMIA also illustrates his willingness to delink from Washington. Finally, tepid participation in the FOIP strategy represents another attempt at distancing from Washington.

Multilaterally, Seoul’s attempts to decouple and distance from Washington are growing more conspicuous. Decisions are aimed at either explicitly appeasing China or implicitly acknowledging its interests. How long and under what conditions Washington will continue to tolerate Seoul’s duality are, however, less certain. Moon is willing to concede on regional security—to Beijing’s favor—but less inclined to reshape bilateral relations in a more comprehensive manner Seoul has sought to convey deference by pulling away from Washington’s regional security framework, and this has created a more constructive environment for Seoul and Beijing to cooperate.

Among the greatest challenges in jump-starting inter-Korean peace talks is the worsening climate in US-China relations. This will bolster Washington’s multilateral security endeavors as well as Beijing’s wedging efforts. Withdrawing from the former or defying the latter will be seen as an affront to their interests, rendering Seoul’s strategy of double allegiance unsustainable.
Moon will find himself cornered into making more exclusive concessions, to the ire of one of them. In this scenario—which seems dangerously plausible and imminent—double allegiance is likely to backfire. 

Stephen Nagy, “Accommodation versus Alliance: Japan’s Prospective Grand Strategy in the Sino-US Competition”

Abe wants it both ways: to tighten the alliance with the United States to the point of joining the “five eyes” in intelligence sharing, and to boost relations with China by insisting on going ahead with a state visit by Xi Jinping as the key to upgrading ties despite growing opposition at home. Recent US vilification of China complicates Japan’s quest for balance. So too does Xi’s latest moves against Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the Uighurs. How can Japan proceed with this balancing act given the sharp downturn in Sino-US relations? To combine these into a grand strategy requires explaining why and how to walk this tightrope—something Japan has yet to attempt.
The year 2020 greatly complicates Japan’s balancing act. Trump’s crusade against China has intensified, month by month. Given the tightening Japan-US alliance. Abe can hardly remain aloof. The Japanese public is also holding a deeply disapproving view of both Xi and of China.

A Japanese grand strategy is related to two perennial concerns: over open access to sea lines of communication (SLOCs) and over the integration of Japan into Asia (Asianism) with economics as the driving force. “Reentry into Asia” is a longstanding aspiration, whose meaning has changed over the past 75 years. Its appeal survives even in this period of Sino-US acrimony. Japan’s approach to negotiating the triangular relationship continues to be based on a balancing blueprint to meet its economic, regionalization, and security imperatives through strengthening its autonomy and deepening its alliance with the US. Maintaining good economic relations with China is the pragmatic thing to do, given the close trade ties. Memories of the frustrating state of Japanese diplomacy in the Cold War era are a reminder that polarization with security in the forefront leaves would strike a serious blow against Japan’s autonomy. Relief that the long-sought normalization and then regularization of diplomacy with China has endured is present too. Concern that a breakdown in often careening relations would have disastrous consequences impacts Japanese thinking as well. The business lobby is more powerful in Japan than in the US, given the weaker roles of the security and human rights lobbies. No matter how disappointed Japanese have felt, they have left the door open to renewed upbeat diplomacy.

The compulsion to accommodate China has at least five roots. First, there is the postwar pull toward Asianism, reestablishing Japan as a leader in the region to balance dependence on the US. Second, there is the legacy of pacifism, assuming that Japanese goodwill toward states perceived as threats can ameliorate tensions. Third, there are geographical and demographic realities that drove Japanese firms to China and left them heavily invested there. Fourth, the LDP has nurtured factions committed to the causes they embrace, and the China faction has proved to have strong staying power. Finally, Abe has cultivated an aura of personal bonds via summitry, suggesting that he can alter the course of bilateral relations in this way, and this has given rise to hopes that his looming meetings with major leaders will be transformative.

At each stage of Sino-US relations over three decades Japan has adjusted its relationship with both to ensure that the US stays engaged and leans heavily to Japan and that China sees clearly that Japan both has a secure alliance and has sufficient autonomy to satisfy China in ways that the US will not. Although in successive stages Japan has had to lower its targets for leverage, it has navigated the triangular dynamics with lingering hope it has room to maneuver. Mostly, it has responded to China’s behavior by calibrating alliance ties. In the 1990s, after China unleashed the “patriotic education campaign,” reviving images of Japan as an enemy, it approved new defense guidelines angering China. In the 2000s after massive Chinese demonstrations over Japan’s moral deficit to become a Security Council permanent member, Japan touted a regional security community with shared liberal values. And in the 2010s after China began its maritime pressure around the Senkaku (Diaoyu tai) Islands, Japan assumed a new posture on collective security. China played the “history card” and railed at changes in Japan’s defense policies, even as it welcomed closer economic ties.

In the face of the intensification of Sino-US strategic competition, key features of Japan’s approach include: 1) buttressing the rules-based order in trade and security; 2) strengthening the US-Japan alliance and institutional ties; 3) diversifying both in quality and quantity strategic partnerships; 4) promoting the FOIP vision; and 5) building national and collective resilience. These pillars are firmly wedded to Japan’s perennial concerns over open access to SLOCs and over the integration of Japan into Asia. Japan fears a breakdown in the rules-based order, US abandonment, and the reestablishment of a Sinocentric order in the Indo-Pacific. Its ability to navigate between the two dominant powers will depend mostly on what their leaders decide.