Countries active in Northeast Asia differ in how they interpret China’s intentions in regard to security. Does China seek regional domination? Is it defensively resisting the aggressive designs of other states, especially the United States? Is it satisfied with a balance of power that will persist for a considerable time? We begin with a close-up of Chinese thinking, then turn to snapshots of the views of the four other countries active in the region, excluding only North Korea. This introduction offers a summary of the chapters that follow, focusing as well on comparisons of four cases.
From China one often finds mixed messages about its real intentions. While attention has been most heavily concentrated on the South China Sea, where China’s militarization keeps moving forward, its intentions on the Korean Peninsula, toward the Russian Far East and Mongolia, and toward Japan (beginning with the East China Sea) matter as well. High expectations were visible in 2014-15 when Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin were showcasing increased cooperation and even integration of their economies, reaching to the Russian Far East. Anticipation rose as well when China on March 2, 2016 supported tough new UN Security Council sanctions on North Korea and, soon afterwards, appeared briefly to suggest that it is amenable to five-party talks to coordinate versus the North. Considering that Xi is finally meeting with Abe Shinzo, including the renewal of the China-Japan-Korea summit in November 2015, China’s views on Northeast Asia appear more cooperative in managing crises and supporting more economic cooperation than in recent years. Yet, the five chapters in Part I cast doubt on such optimism, pointing to suspicions in China and elsewhere about prospects. The chapter on China’s thinking points to a pessimistic outlook; that on U.S. thinking finds the mainstream to be warning against Chinese plans to establish a sphere of influence in Northeast Asia; and that on Japan foresees some dangerous unintended consequences of China’s intentions to change the status quo by force. The chapter on Russian thinking, despite differentiating three schools with different ideas about the impact on Russia, largely confirms the impression that China is poised to challenge the United States, which many welcome even as they may doubt other Chinese aims. Only the chapter on South Korean thinking was decidedly doubtful about intentions of this sort, but North Korea’s nuclear test in early 2016 shifted the terms of debate.