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Spheres of Influence, Regional Orders, and China’s Rise

China’s rise is surfacing basic questions about how the United States can best achieve interests in East Asia.  A central question is what type of geopolitical architecture the United States should strive to put in place as the current unipolar system becomes a bipolar system.  Two frequently offered candidates are a reinvigorated sphere of influence and a reshaped regional order.  However, although frequently employed, the concepts are not well understood.  We lack an adequate understanding of what these concepts entail, how they are best achieved, and how effective each would be if successfully implemented.  Our Minerva project is designed to fill these theoretical and policy gaps, and to explore the implications for U.S. policy toward East Asia over the coming decades.

The project will begin with an exploration of the basic concepts: What is a sphere of influence?  How does it actually work?  More specifically, via what mechanisms do military capabilities, military alliances and economic cooperation create a sphere of influence?  And, especially important in the specific case of a rising China, what special challenges does a declining state face when striving to preserve its sphere of influence?  We will ask the parallel questions for regional orders.  The project will then be well positioned to compare the two concepts: are spheres and orders mutually compatible?  Can they reinforce each other or is there instead a tension in pursuing these approaches simultaneously.

Building on this conceptual foundation, the project will explore a range of means that a state can employ in support of a sphere of influence or a regional order, or both.  Military means include a state’s own military capabilities, especially its ability to project power, and its alliances.  The project explores three aspects of the potential military means: 1) the challenges of maintaining and extending alliances as a state declines; 2) the dilemmas created by alliance policies that require forward deployed forces, focusing on the pressures and incentives such deployments create for escalation of a conventional conflict to the nuclear level; and 3) states’ decisions to deploy power-projection capabilities, questioning why some but not all major powers develop the capabilities that their resources can support.

International institutions are a second means available to states; the project explores them from two perspectives.  First, fundamental features of institution design—including membership and voting rules—may affect both how much influence a state can exert and how effective the institution will be.  The project asks how different institutional designs will influence the U.S. ability to preserve its sphere of influence and build a new regional order.  Second, the project explores the relative advantages of formal alliance and multilateral institutions for building a regional order in Northeast Asia, focusing on how these institutions promote rules and norms which may support or undermine U.S. preferences.

A still broader understanding of spheres and orders requires studying additional potential means available to states.  Economic policy can play a central role in both.  The project explores how growing trade and investment can increase a state’s influence and challenge an existing sphere of influence; this component of the project focuses on China’s growing economic involvement in Latin America, and then explores the implications for China’s expanding economic role in East Asia.  A less explored means of influence may be a state’s diaspora.  The project explores how China manages and interacts with its diaspora in Asia, and around the globe, to acquire local and regional influence.

In combination, these overlapping components of the project will provide a rich understanding of all facets of spheres of influence and regional orders broadly, shedding light on the various military, economic, institutional and diplomatic means available to states for employing these approaches in pursuing their regional interests.  By focusing on China’s rise and East Asia the project will offer critical insights into the specific challenges the United States faces, including maintaining the political and military viability of the U.S.-Japan alliance, anticipating the potential threats that will likely accompany China’s rise, and creating a regional order that includes China while preventing it from dominating East Asia.

Minerva Supported ISCS Publications

Stephen B. Kaplan (2016) Banking unconditionally: the political economy of Chinese finance in Latin America, Review of International Political Economy, 23:4, 643-676, DOI: 10.1080/09692290.2016.1216005




Kaplan, Stephen B., The Rise of Patient Capital: The Political Economy of Chinese Global Finance (July 24, 2018). Available at SSRN: or



Alexandra Délano Alonso and Harris Mylonas. 2017. “The Microfoundations of Diaspora Politics: Unpacking the State and Disaggregating the Diaspora,” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies





Harris Mylonas and Marko Žilović. 2017. “Foreign Policy Priorities and Ethnic Return Migration Policies: Group-Level Variation in Greece and Serbia,” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies.


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