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International Relations Of Asia
“This is the only region in the world where so many combinations and
permutations of two- three and four- and even two plus four or three plus three-
power games can be played on the regional chessboard with all their complexities
The concept of strategic geometry comprises the notion that that the
interactions and interconnections between a number of political actors within a
particular system of international relations, either global or regional can be
seen in terms of geometric patterns of strategic configurations. It can be a
case of simple geometry, in which A interacts with B: but in a more complex
system such as that of Asia, with the presence of more than one major actor,
each with their distinct, sometimes conflicting political agendas, the
interaction between A and B will be likely to affect C or influenced by C.
The concept of an international ?system’ itself implies that events are
not random, and units within the system are interrelated in some patterned way.
This ?patterning’ maybe envisaged or conceptualized as patterns of strategic
Any attempt to analyze the transition from a Cold War system of
international relations to a post Cold War one, will incorporate an analysis of
the general nature of the system itself, in this case the system of
international relations in Asia; of the actors involved and their respective
roles; how changes in the political environment and in specific policies of the
actors shape the evolution of a new system; and finally the nature of the new
system with its own actors, their new roles, and new concerns.
The concept of strategic geometry enables us to understand these
changes in the political dynamics from one system to another, in our case the
transition from the Cold War to the post Cold War era, by serving as an analytic
tool. If we view the international relations of Asia, more and the interactions
of the main actors in terms of strategic configurations and geometric patterns
of alignments and oppositions, then we can assess changes in the political
system over time by way of the changes in the strategic geometry. Some strategic
configurations change, others remain the same, while new patterns of strategic
geometry appear, as the old forms dissolve–the explanations behind the shifting
pattern of strategic geometry is what enables us to understand the transition
from the Cold War era to the post Cold War.
Geopolitical and politico-economic factors have in some cases changed
the content, but not the form of the particular strategic configurations and in
some cases however, we find both form and content are changed. In my essay I
will focus on this dual analysis of the content and form of the major patterns
of strategic geometry and their change over time from Cold War to post Cold War.
In order to assess the usefulness of the concept of strategic geometry, we must
first see how well the concept is expressed in the international relations of
Asia. Firstly I will briefly outline the general strategic concerns or tenets of
the Cold War era, the roles and interactions of the actors involved, and the
major strategic geometric patterns this produced. The second part of my essay
will comprise an analysis of the evolution of the system, and the tenets of the
new post cold war system, drawing attention at the same time to the usefulness
of the concept of strategic geometry to explain the transition.
One may even conceptualize pre -Cold War international relations in
strategic geometric terms: the past is replete with instances of three-way
interactions between Japan, China and the Soviet Union. According to Mandlebaum,
the fate of the region has “for the last two centuries’ depended ?on the fate of
three major powers–China, Japan and Russia, on the stability and tranquillity
of their mutual relations.” Hence we may presume that it is not novel or
unknown to apply the concept of strategic geometry to Asia and as I shall
illustrate it will prove particularly useful in understanding the transition
from the Cold War to the post Cold War era.
Let us begin with a simpler model of strategic geometry which existed in
Europe during the Cold War. From 1948 onwards, a more or less clear-cut line
divided Europe into two main political and military blocs: the communist bloc
and the free world of Western Europe, resulting in an almost perfect bipolarity.
However, the politics in Asia during the same period were more dynamic and
nuanced than just the simple East-West divide of Europe. Here, there was none
of “the sharp structural clarity of Europe,” no drawing of a line, no Iron
Curtain; rather, there existed a more complex web of international relations,
because of the physical presence of three great powers: the Soviet Union, China
and Japan. And from 1945 onwards, another great power, the United States, took
up a permanent political and military residence in the region. These four major
powers have dominated the East Asia region both during the Cold War and
continue to do so in the post- Cold War era, hence according to Mandlebaum, “the
appropriate geometric metaphor was and still is the strategic quadrangle.” The
interactions of these four main powers-sometimes in cooperation, other times in
conflict- have shaped the international relations of Asia. How this took place
during and after the Cold War is in many ways quite dissimilar. However, more
importantly than the all encompassing quadrangle, it is the strategic geometry
within the quadrangle that is most interesting and illustrates best, the changes
and nuances in the transition from Cold War to post Cold War. The interactions
within the strategic quadrangle itself, have been generally of a bilateral or
triangular nature. As Mandlebaum suggests “Indeed in Asia, the structure of
politics all along has been more complex than the stark bipolarity of Europe.
Rather than two competing systems, Asia’s international order was a clutter of
triangles.” The triangle is the predominant strategic geometric metaphor
characterizing the nature of interactions in East Asia, especially during the
Cold War and to a less intense degree in the post Cold War era.
the Cold War era
The Cold War system of international relations was a geopolitical
intermixing of security, ideology and the balance of power, especially military
power. Everything took root from two essential conflicts: firstly, the US-
Soviet opposition and secondly, from the 1970s onwards the Sino-Soviet split;
and from one essential alliance: the US-Japanese partnership. Each of these
bilateral alliances or oppositions affected in some way a third party. ?The most
well-known and widely debated triangle being the Sino-Soviet-US grouping with at
least 4 possible configurations.”
One may just turn towards one actor in the system, or one player in the
Strategic Quadrangle, to see the preoccupation with strategic geometry. As
Mandlebaum states: “For no country more than the Soviet Union did the underlying
structure of Asian international politics revolve about a complex
interconnected set of triangular relationships. The most obvious and famous of
the triangles linked the Soviet Union, China and the United States, but the
Soviet-US- Japan triangle was also important. In addition, five others also
helped to shape Soviet policy 1. Sino-Soviet -Japanese triangle 2. Sino-Soviet-
North Korean triangle 3. Sino-Soviet-Vietnamese triangle 4. Soviet-Vietnamese-
ASEAN triangle 5. Sino-Soviet-Indian triangle. Though from this perspective,
certain things stand out. First, China’s centrality: China figures in nearly all
of the triangles, not even the US affected Soviet policy to this degree. Second,
the full set of triangles that impeded, shaped and invigorated the policies of
Gorbachev’s predecessors varied greatly in importance, all of them overshadowed
by the crucial Sino-Soviet-US triangle. Indeed the others owed much of their
dynamic to the course of events in this main triangle.” Through the 1960s,
there were 4 main triangles in the Asian political arena: Soviet Union-China-
North Vietnam, Soviet Union-Japan-US, Sino-Soviet-Indian- and Soviet Union-
China-North Korea. In the 1970s, however this changed not only because more
triangles were added, but because they included a new kind of triangle, the
“Normally triangles are not thought of as a stable form in social or
political relationships nor as a stabilizing influence within a larger setting.
The great post-war exception was the Soviet-US-Japan triangle. Relationships
among the three countries scarcely changed, apart from fluctuations in US-Soviet
and US-Japanese relations from time to time. Its immobility may have been the
single most stabilizing element in post war Asian politics.” The Soviet-
Japanese-American triangle drove Soviet policy towards Japan, since the Soviets
viewed Japan as a creature of American engagement in Asia. A whole series of
strategic triangles were borne out of the cold war climate which make strategic
geometry very useful and illuminating model to study the international
relations of Asia during the period. However, our emphasis is on the usefulness
of the concept for studying the ?transition’ from Cold War to post Cold War.
This requires an analysis of both systems, in order to assess the process of
the post-Cold War era: changes in the system
Today, we are in a relatively ?open’ period of history, free from the
polarized nature of the Cold War, yet “more than ever each of the four powers
has compelling stakes in its relations with the other three. More than ever each
of the four counts as a separate and independent player, none has the power or
inclination to destroy the equilibrium.” But what about strategic geometry? With
the disappearance of the Soviet threat is it still a useful model for the study
of international relations in Asia? Or is its use limited to the great power
play of the Cold War? And most importantly, how can the concept of strategic
geometry lend to our understanding of the transition from the Cold War to the
post Cold War system of international relations in Asia?
First, I will briefly outline the features of the transition.
The tenets of the post Cold War system seem to be the predominance of
economic considerations, national welfare and stability. Mandlebaum expresses
his view of the transition from a Cold War to a post Cold War system, when he
states: “nations, including those in East Asia, crossed into a world in which
they had more to bear from dangers than enemies….dangers of political,
economic, and ecological disorder…the primary stakes ceased to be security,
but welfare…no longer war and peace, but the vitality of societies and the
dynamism of economies.”
To begin with what constitutes ?power’ has changed dramatically in wake
of the demise of the Soviet Union. The shift from a military to an economic
definition of power, from “a geopolitical to a geoeconomic axis” resulting from
“wholesale change in the entire military-strategic edifice in Asia,” has in its
turn, produced “a radically different range of collaborations among the four
major powers.” Though, military concerns still warrant a significant priority,
as some of today’s triangles demonstrate, especially considering the presence of
three out of five of the world’s nuclear powers in the region. On the whole
however, today’s Asia is one of mutually dependent economies “where economics is
the name of the game.” The concept of strategic geometry has a reduced validity
or maybe more aptly termed ?economic geometry.’ With the rise of the Asian
tigers, and Japan’s status of an economic superpower, coupled with greater
regionalism such as embodied by the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and ASEAN,
there is more diversification of power in East Asia, at least in economic terms.
Understanding the change from a Cold War to a post Cold War system also
requires an understanding of the transition in terms of military power. China
and Japan are the rising military powers, while Russia is a declining one.
Strategic geometry very useful in assessing the transition in these terms.
Instead of Japan and the US balancing Russian military power, today Japan and
the US act to balance Chinese military power. I will elaborate on this issue
later, in my discussion of the Japan-US-China triangle.
Democracy and prosperity, two traditional goals are back on the US
agenda after the disappearance of the Soviet threat. Yet for the US, like for
the others, the post Cold War is still dominated by considerations of power and
wealth; fear of the first and lure of the second keeping the US engaged in East
Russia’s preoccupation with internal restructuring and the rise of
Central Asia has meant that Russia’s role in the strategic quadrangle has become
as “less of a player than a problem.” Within the quadrangle, Russia has
replaced the Soviet Union. “The radical revision of Russia’s surroundings not
only profoundly affects Russian foreign policy and therefore indirectly East
Asia, but it directly affects East Asia because of the new, intervening reality
of Central Asia. From the standpoint of the others, the Soviet threat is not of
warfare but of diminished national and international welfare.”
China’s emphasis on economic modernization. China has been the least
changed by the ending of the Cold War since its great shift in course came a
decade earlier, at the end of 1970s which saw the development of Deng Xiaoping’s
program of economic reform. The post Cold War era sees China more firmly
committed to a capitalist vision, with its focus on economic modernization and
growth. This in turn has produced China’s ?omni-directional’ foreign policy. The
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