Ebb and flow of hedging in Southeast Asia

by Frank Ching

HONG KONG — Last week, when the China-Japan dispute over the detention of the captain of a Chinese fishing trawler was hanging fire, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said American efforts to improve relations with China must “go through Tokyo” because Japan was vital to the United States.

“We sometimes of late have been too quick to focus on one relationship which is critically important,” he said, evidently referring to China and implying that the relationship with Japan had been neglected. Renewed tension with Beijing over disputed islands claimed by both China and Japan has had the effect of moving Japan and the United States closer together.

Last Friday, President Barack Obama and Premier Naoto Kan discussed the maritime issue, which involved islands claimed by both Japan and China, and the two “agreed to consult closely on such issues.”

Other American officials were even more candid. Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara said he had been told by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that the disputed Senkaku, or Diaoyu, Islands come under the protection of the U.S.-Japan security treaty.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, also talking about the islands, declared that “We would fulfill our alliance responsibilities.”

Biden’s remarks clearly reflected changing thinking within the Obama administration, which, when it assumed office last year, sought China’s cooperation on virtually all global issues — leading to speculation that a “Group of Two” was in the making — and bent over backward not to provoke China. As a result, no arms sales to Taiwan were announced and a meeting with the Dalai Lama was postponed until after Obama’s visit to China in November.

Japan, too, had a very different attitude toward China last year. When the Democratic Party of Japan became the ruling party, then Premier Yukio Hatoyama wanted his country to be more assertive vis-a-vis the United States and to focus more on China-dominated East Asia as “Japan’s basic sphere of being.”

Since then, both the U.S. and Japan have had to reassess their position. The U.S. saw that postponing Taiwan arms sales and a Dalai Lama meeting did not win Washington any points with China.

In fact, when those deferred events eventually occurred, Beijing responded with greater fury than before, making it clear that it expects the U.S. to behave differently now that China had a more important place in the world.

China has been much more assertive since its perception that the U.S. had been gravely weakened by the global financial crisis in 2008.

To show its displeasure with Washington, China halted military- to-military exchanges, rescinding an invitation to Secretary Gates to visit Beijing.

An invitation from President Obama to President Hu Jintao to visit the U.S. in 2010 was “accepted with pleasure” in 2009. Now, it has been deferred to next year.

As a result of increased Chinese assertiveness — despite Beijing’s continued insistence that its rise will be peaceful — other countries on China’s periphery, besides Japan, are also beginning to see the need to hedge against the emerging power while still seeing the benefit of developing economic relations with Beijing.

This includes South Korea, which lost a naval ship, the Cheonan, in March with the death of 46 men-allegedly as the result of a torpedo attack by North Korea. Seoul has been deeply disappointed by China, which has shielded North Korea from direct condemnation in the U.N. Security Council.

Even the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which already has a free trade agreement with Beijing, is now showing that it sees a need for greater balance. Last Friday, a summit meeting between ASEAN and the U.S. was held in New York and cochaired by President Obama.

The Chinese foreign ministry had sought to pre-empt the outcome by publicly opposing American involvement in the South China Sea. “We firmly oppose any country having nothing to do with the South China Sea issue getting involved in the dispute,” said spokesperson Jiang Yu.

As a result, the joint statement issued after the U.S.-ASEAN meeting did not mention the South China Sea. It did reaffirm the importance of freedom of navigation and “the peaceful settlement of disputes.”

So, a year after Beijing seemed to be riding high, enjoying the friendship and support if not the adulation of its neighbors, it is now faced with countries that, while not hostile are definitely mindful of the need to hedge against an economically, politically and militarily rising China.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator (Frank.ching@gmail.com).