Head, US and the Americas Programme; Dean, The Queen Elizabeth II Academy for Leadership in International Affairs
Assistant Head, US and the Americas Programme

Drawing on the findings of a recent workshop exploring a potential conflict between China and Japan over disputed islands, this paper suggests there are significant differences between how the United States and Europe prioritize their interests in the Asia-Pacific.

A Japanese activist on board boat is silhouetted at sunrise as it approaches the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, 19 August 2012. Photo: Antoine Bouthier/AFP/Getty Images.A Japanese activist on board a boat is silhouetted at sunrise as it approaches the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, 19 August 2012. Photo by Getty Images.

Summary

  • Chatham House brought together European, Asian and American policy-makers and experts over the course of a two-day scenario workshop in November 2015. The participants were asked to take part in a structured role-playing exercise imagining a potential near-future conflict between China and Japan over disputed islands.
  • The findings of the workshop, and the actions of participants in the simulation, suggested significant differences between how the United States and Europe prioritize their interests in the Asia-Pacific. In particular, the perception was that the European Union and its member states consider challenges from their ‘near abroad’ as more tangible than those emanating from Asia, and that they focus on commercial opportunities in the region. In contrast, US foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific is seen as emphasizing strategic and geopolitical challenges.
  • In terms of military capabilities, Europeans view themselves as having few assets to bring to bear in Asia. European, American and Asian observers are largely unaware of French and British military capabilities in or near the region.
  • Beyond the military, Europe’s other tools of leverage – diplomatic, development, economic and other soft-power instruments – are also ignored. Europeans are often unaware of the activities of their own governments in the region. This is equally true in reverse – Japan’s engagement vis-à-vis European interests (such as with respect to Russia or Syria) is little recognized by Europeans.
  • European nations prefer to engage unilaterally with Asia on trade and multilaterally, through the EU, on security and geopolitical issues. However, no ideal forum for multilateral coordination exists (given the fact that the EU is not a member of most Asian regional organizations).
  • The US’s greater engagement in Asia reflects the fact that the US, unlike its European counterparts, is a Pacific nation. But it can also be explained by greater domestic public support for such engagement. This reflects the presence of significant numbers of US troops in Asia and the relatively high proportion of ethnic Asians in the US compared with the EU.