Despite efforts to forge deeper ties with China to make East Asia
more stable, Beijing's declaration of a maritime air defense zone
has escalated its territorial dispute with U.S. ally Japan. The U.S.
responded by flying B-52 bombers through the zone on a training
mission Tuesday without informing Beijing.
Analysts say the risk of a military clash between the Asian powers
has gone up a notch — a serious concern for the U.S. because its
treaty obligations mean it could be drawn in to help Japan.
Meantime, relations between America's core allies in the region,
Japan and South Korea, have deteriorated. South Korea is bitter over
Japan's attitude toward its colonial past and wants more contrition
from Tokyo for Japan's use of Korean sex slaves in World War II.
That complicates the strategic picture for the Obama administration
as it looks to advance its so-called pivot to Asia and strengthen
not just its own alliances, but get its partners in the region to
"The region is moving in a very problematic direction," said Evans
Revere, a former senior U.S. diplomat and East Asia specialist.
"That's the result of territorial disputes, historical issues,
long-standing rivalries and the inability of countries to put
history behind them and move forward in improving relations."
Adding to this witches' brew of bickering in the region, Washington
is grappling with the threat posed by an unpredictable North Korea.
The deal the U.S. orchestrated with Iran to temporarily freeze its
nuclear program, despite three decades of animosity, is a stark
reminder of the impasse in negotiations with Pyongyang.
Unlike Iran, North Korea already has a nuclear bomb, and there's
worrying evidence it is pressing ahead with weapons development.
Analysts expect Vice President Joe Biden to broach these issues when
he travels to Japan, China and South Korea next week — a trip to
demonstrate that the top level of the administration remains focused
Secretary of State John Kerry hasn't neglected the region, but his
primary focus is on the Mideast and is likely to remain that way as
he strives for the distant goals of an end to Syria's civil war,
peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and a comprehensive nuclear
agreement with Iran after the current pact expires in six months.
U.S. domestic woes have contributed to a narrative that Asia is a
secondary concern to the administration.
Obama was forced to cancel a four-nation trip to the region in
October because of a partial U.S. government shutdown and threat of
a debt default. He'll travel to Asia in April instead.
Obama made Asia a foreign policy priority when he took power in 2009
and has been particularly active in engaging China. Not known for
the personal touch with foreign leaders, Obama sought to cultivate a
relationship with new Chinese leader Xi Jinping when he met him in
June at a California resort. That's part of a strategy to promote
cooperation between the world's two largest economies and prevent
their rivalry in the Asia-Pacific from spawning conflict.
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But China's declaration of its East China Sea air defense zone will
be viewed as unhelpful. It was rejected by Japan, South Korea and
Taiwan, and prompted quick expressions of deep U.S. concern that it
could escalate tensions in the region.
"This really casts bit of a pall over efforts to improve
(U.S.-China) relations," Revere said.
The U.S. said it would not change how it conducts military
operations in the region and flew a pair of B-52 bombers through the
zone Tuesday on what officials said was a long-planned training
China's Defense Ministry said Wednesday it had detected and
monitored the bombers. It said all aircraft flying through the zone
would be monitored, but made no mention of a threat to take
"defensive emergency measures" against noncompliant aircraft that
was included in an announcement Saturday.
Bonnie Glaser, a China specialist at the Center for Strategic and
International Studies, expected Biden to raise the issue with
civilian and military leaders in China. She said that while
countries have a right to declare such a zone — the U.S., South
Korea and Japan all have them — there will be concern about how
China would enforce it.
"The question is how many times China will scramble their jets and
against whom," she said.
The zone encompasses unoccupied but Japanese-administered islands
that Japan calls Senkaku and China calls Diaoyu. Since Japan
nationalized some of the islands a year ago, there's been a constant
cat-and-mouse between the two nations' sea vessels and aircraft.
There's been no skirmish, although Japan accused China in January of
locking targeting radar on a Japanese helicopter and frigate, which
underscored the risks of a clash.
Proponents of the U.S. pivot view a strong American military
presence and diplomatic engagement as essential to maintaining the
decades of relative stability and economic prosperity the region has
But the rift between South Korea and Japan, which host some 80,000
U.S. forces between them, complicates that task. The nationalist
Japanese leader's intent to allow a more active role for its
military, which is constrained by a pacifist constitution, has
further alienated South Korea.
Victor Cha, White House director for Asia affairs under President
George W. Bush, said that has raised concerns that Seoul is siding
with Beijing on the issue. Although Seoul has voiced concern over
the new Chinese air defense zone, he said the Obama administration
faces a major strategic problem: "How do you pivot to Asia when your
two main allies are deeply in conflict with each other?"
Press; MATTHEW PENNINGTON]
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