Obama’s Asia rebalance turns into headache as China, Japan relations spiral down

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In a recent article in the Washington Post, Simon Denyer discusses the U.S. efforts to rebalance its foreign policy toward Asia. In particular, the article notes that the U.S. rebalancing has not been particularly effective in reducing regional tensions. As Denyer notes, the U.S. alliance with Japan means that the U.S. is hardly a neutral party in its efforts to balance its relations with China and Japan. Moreover, the fact that the U.S. was not given much, if any, notice about China’s imposition of an “air defense zone” in the East China Sea or Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the Yasakuni Shrine shows that the U.S. efforts in the region are ineffective. Given these actions by both China and Japan, the risk of miscalculation is particularly high. This echoes a point made by Joseph Nye during his BGF Distinguished Lecture: neither side wants war but there is a risk of miscalculation. Thus the article concludes that crisis management in the region must be an immediate priority for the U.S. An excerpt of the article if provided below. Click here to read the full article.

Obama’s Asia rebalance turns into headache as China, Japan relations spiral down

By Simon Denyer

Beijing recently announced that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was simply not welcome there. At the same time, the media in both countries have stoked the fire with speculation about a possible military confrontation that could even suck in the United States, which is bound by treaty to defend Japan in case of attack.

U.S. officials and experts say conflict between the Asian powers remains unlikely, with both sides keen to preserve economic ties, and neither likely to emerge as a clear winner.

Nevertheless, as naval vessels spar in disputed waters and fighter jets patrol disputed skies, the risk of accidents or miscalculations has risen. Maintaining peace in Asia’s seas has become a major U.S. concern in the year ahead, officials say.

Obama had hoped his foreign policy “pivot” toward Asia would shift U.S. government attention away from trouble spots like Afghanistan and Iraq and toward a region brimming with economic opportunities. It aimed to strengthen longstanding alliances in Asia and bring new resolve to managing the relationship with China.

But experts say the U.S. effort to deepen relations with both China and its traditional Asian allies could become an impossible balancing act.

“In a perfect world you could do both simultaneously without conflict, but in practice, whatever you do with one side, the other side sees it as being done against them,” said Ely Ratner at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.

Daniel Russel, assistant U.S. secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said the security umbrella provided by Washington had preserved regional peace for decades. The rebalance merely reinforces that commitment to Asia in a time of rising Chinese influence and assertiveness, he argued.

But some experts argue that the current emphasis on strengthening security links with Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Australia and the Philippines could actually be raising regional tensions.

“It is only encouraging those in China who have been saying for some time that Americans have reverted to Cold War thinking, and this is part of a containment strategy,” said Mel Gurtov, a professor of political science at Portland State University, and editor of the Asian Perspectivejournal.

America’s alliance with Japan means the United States is far from a neutral party in the China-Japan spat, “and the most important relationship we have to cultivate, with China, is bound to suffer.

In a sign of the increasing strain in U.S.-China relations, , American lawmakerswarned last week at a House subcommittee hearing that the United States must not tolerate China’s use of military coercion in pursuit of its territorial claims. Beijing’s nationalist Global Times newspaper responded by arguing that U.S. meddling risked “triggering an all-out confrontation with China,” – although the paper simultaneously advocated restraint and cooperation.

Tensions escalated in late November after China imposed an air defense identification zone over vast swathes of the East China Sea, including over islandsadministered by the Japanese. It demanded that all noncommercial aircraft entering the zone identify themselves or face “defensive emergency measures”. Calling China’s bluff, the United States flew two B-52 bombers through the zone within days.

Then, in December, Abe paid a visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, where 14 war criminals from World War II are honored. That stoked anger in both China and South Korea, where memories of Japanese wartime atrocities remain fresh, and prompted Beijing’s declaration that Abe had “shut the door to dialogue.”

U.S. efforts to calm tensions have so far had little apparent effect. Indeed, it is not clear either side is paying Washington much attention: U.S. officials say they learned less than an hour in advance about the air defense zone — which came just before Vice President Biden’s visit to the region– and got little notice about Abe’s visit to the shrine

Russel said the roll-out of China’s air defense zone had increased the risk of “miscalculation and an accident” that could lead to conflict.

“This was not simply a failure to communicate,” he said in a telephone interview. “It was an action that bypassed a consultative, collaborative process, and is a type of behavior that is inconsistent with the stature and status that China clearly seeks in the region.”

The Yasukuni visit, he said, was a concern of a much lower order of magnitude, but was nevertheless “very disappointing.”

Russel said Obama’s efforts to build a relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping had improved channels of communication and given Washington the chance “to speak very directly and very candidly to China about our concerns.”

Nevertheless,Beijing is not backing down from its territorial claims. Indeed, this month it announced an effort to exert tighter control over fishing in the waters of the South China Sea, which are contested by countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines: the State Department called that move “provocative and potentially dangerous.”

For Washington, the immediate priority is crisis management — getting both sides to agree to some rules of engagement in contested waters and skies, as well as encouraging them to set up hotlines.

Click here to read the full article.