WASHINGTON/BEIJING – The Obama administration is making diplomatic progress on some of the Mideast’s most thorny security issues but problems are piling up in a region that Barack Obama had wanted to play a bigger part in American foreign policy: Asia.
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.
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. Meanwhile, relations between America’s core allies in the region, Japan and South Korea, always uneasy, have deteriorated. 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 collaborate more.
“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.
Analysts expect U.S. Vice President Joe Biden to broach these issues when he travels to Japan, China and South Korea next week — a trip to demonstrate the top level of the administration remains focused on Asia.
Top U.S. diplomat 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 goal of an end to Syria’s civil war, peace between Israel and Palestine, 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 top foreign policy priority when he took power in 2009, and has been particularly active in engaging China.
But China’s declaration at the weekend of its East China Sea air defense zone will be viewed as unhelpful 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.
As a foreign policy gambit, China’s declaration seems to have flopped. Analysts say Beijing may have miscalculated the forcefulness and speed with which its neighbors rejected its demands.
Washington, which has hundreds of military aircraft based in the region, says it has zero intention of complying. Japan likewise has called the zone invalid, unenforceable and dangerous, while Taiwan and South Korea, both close to the U.S., also rejected it.
At least in the short term, the move undermines China’s drive for regional influence, said Bonnie Glaser, an Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “It doesn’t serve Chinese interests to have tensions with so many neighbors simultaneously,” she said.
Denny Roy, a security expert at the East-West Center in Hawaii, said China’s enforcement will likely be mostly rhetorical at first.
“The Chinese can now start counting and reporting what they call Japanese violations, while arguing that the Chinese side has shown great restraint by not exercising what they will call China’s right to shoot, and arguing further that China cannot be so patient indefinitely,” Roy said.
China also faces practical difficulties deriving from gaps in its air-to-air refueling and early warning and control capabilities, presenting challenges in both detecting foreign aircraft and keeping its planes in the air, according to Greg Waldron, Asia managing editor at Flightglobal magazine in Singapore.
Despite that, Beijing has shown no sign of backing down, just as it has continued to aggressively enforce its island claims in the South China Sea over the strong protests from its neighbors.
Analysts don’t expect immediate confrontations with foreign aircraft, but say the move fits a pattern of putting teeth behind China’s territorial claims and could potentially lead to dangerous encounters. Although enforcement is expected to start slowly, Beijing has a record of playing the long game, and could gradually scale up activity.
“The Chinese aren’t going to back off. We’re not going to back off,” said Patrick Cronin, an Asia analyst at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank that consults closely with the Obama administration. “So right now, the trajectory is that there’s going to be some kind of mishap in the next couple of years.”
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 enjoyed.
But the rift between South Korea and Japan, which host some 80,000 U.S. forces between them, complicates that task. As well as historical issues that dog relations between the U.S. allies, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s intent to allow a more active role for the Self-Defense Forces, which are constrained by the pacifist Constitution, has further alienated South Korea.
Victor Cha, White House director for Asia affairs under 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?”