Drastic changes may occur in the geopolitical map of the Pacific region. U.S. President Barack Obama stated in September in connection with the Syrian crisis that the United States should not become the world’s policeman. But there is no denying that the Asia-Pacific region has two policemen — the U.S. and China.

Japan, South Korea and the member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have varying degrees and types of relations with both the U.S. and China. They have close ties with the U.S. on matters related to security and with China on the economic front. Moreover, Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia have territorial disputes with China. What would happen under these circumstances if Washington’s leadership wanes?

Obama’s absence was conspicuous at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit held in Bali, Indonesia, on Oct. 7-8 and at the ensuing ASEAN top level talks in Brunei on Oct. 9-10. In contrast, President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang of China behaved as they liked.

Doesn’t Obama, who is preoccupied with domestic problems, have the time and wisdom to face China in cooperation with Japan? Which country or countries will fill the vacuum if U.S. influence continues to recede? Is Prime Minister Shinzo Abe conscious of historic responsibilities that Japan has to gradually take up?

The words and deeds of Xi and Li at the APEC and ASEAN summits were conspicuous. How Beijing is eager to bring the ASEAN member nations into its sphere of influence is clear. As if to prove that point, China sponsored a special meeting with foreign ministers of the ASEAN countries in Beijing in August, sponsored a China-ASEAN exhibition in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region in September, and held the first round of an official dialogue with the 10-nation group in Jiangsu Province on formulating a “code of conduct” in the South China Sea.

Addressing the Indonesian legislature, Xi called for establishing a China-ASEAN community sharing common destiny. He also unveiled a scheme to build a “maritime Silk Road of the 21st century” with an eye on expanding China-ASEAN trade to $1 trillion dollars by 2020 and pledged to provide scholarships to 15,000 students in three to five years from 2014, which will be the year of China-ASEAN cultural exchange. Around the same time, Li was making official visits to Brunei, Thailand and Vietnam.

Of about 1,200 corporations taking part in the APEC meeting of chief executive officers held in Bali, more than a quarter were from China, boasting the country’s economic might.

China has tried to isolate the Philippines within the ASEAN countries because of their territorial disputes. Manila has asked the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea to mediate in its dispute with Beijing over the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. It is also pushing for a military accord with the U.S. with a view to deployment of U.S. forces in the Philippines. Beijing has expressed its discontent about this move.

When it comes to Vietnam, China has taken careful steps to placate it with Li visiting Hanoi on Oct. 13 to meet with Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung. The two agreed to create a working group to work out a peaceful solution to territorial disputes in the South China Sea. The China-Vietnam rapprochement is bound to impact the Philippines and other countries.

China’s effective control of the Scarborough Shoal is making steady progress, following the establishment of its effective control of the Philippine-claimed Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands in 1995, on the heels of the withdrawal of the U.S. Navy from the Subic Bay on Luzon Island in 1992.

In July 2010, then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton bluntly told her Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi that ensuring the freedom of navigation and respect for international law are directly related to the national interests of her country and countries having close ties with the U.S., in an apparent bid to prevent China’s move to get favorable terms in territorial disputes with its neighbors through bilateral negotiations and to apply a divide and rule approach to such countries as Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and Brunei. Will the Obama administration have the guts to take such a resolute stand against China?

Obama’s absence from the top-level meeting in Bali in October for the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade greatly served to strengthen the position of China.

The New York Times said in an Oct. 4 article that Obama’s failure to attend the meeting further jeopardized Obama’s pivot to Asia, that Asian countries — having seen a rebellion in the House of Representatives against the administration’s social welfare policy — have been bewildered by the way American democracy works, and that doubts have been cast about Washington’s ability and willingness to stand up against China in emergency cases.

It was Abe who countervailed China in place of the U.S., which has almost lost its presence. On Oct. 7, he met with Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang in Bali, and two days later, he conferred with Filipino President Benigno Aquino in the Brunei capital of Bandar Seri Begawan.

He told them that he had serious concerns about a move to change the status quo by force and that disputes should be settled peacefully in accordance with international law.

Abe’s basic thoughts on these matters are summarized in a statement he made at a press conference after the series of top-level talks: “Fundamental rules related to maritime affairs like international law must be respected and law, rather than force, should rule. I am deeply interested in the consultations between ASEAN and China on establishing the code of conduct. I hope for an early establishment of the code of conduct that would have a legally binding power and be effective in resolving disputes.” It seems as though the confrontation of 2010 between Clinton and Yang was re-enacted by Abe and Xi.

The Abe administration will shortly announce a new outline of defense programs and create a U.S.-style National Security Council. At the same time, the government is seeking to amend the long-standing constitutional interpretation by the Cabinet Legislative Bureau that “although Japan does have the right to collective self-defense, it is constitutionally prohibited from exercising it.”

Aside from the pros and cons within Japan about this move, a survey by a private research group has shown that prime ministers, foreign ministers and other leaders of countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam have publicly expressed their support for an amendment of Japan’s war-renouncing Constitution and a change of the constitutional interpretation concerning the right to collective self-defense.

This clearly indicates what ASEAN member nations are frightened of and which country they want to fill the vacuum stemming from the waning American influence.

Another factor that could have an impact on the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region is the rise of Tony Abbott as Australian prime minister. An ardent supporter of the alliance between Australia and the U.S., he has among his two foreign policy advisers an expert in Japanese affairs, Andrew Shearer, a senior research fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy, Australia’s biggest think tank. He served former Prime Minister John Howard in the same capacity when the latter and Abe signed a joint declaration on security cooperation in March 2007.

Abe and Abbott met at Bandar Seri Begawan on Oct. 9 and confirmed further strengthening security ties between their two countries. On Oct. 15, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop told reporters in Tokyo after her meeting with Abe that she supported Japan’s exercise of the right to collective self-defense.

Changes in the balance of power in the Pacific will probably work against the U.S. Forty-three years ago, in 1970, American commentator Richard Halloran made a bold prediction, which attracted tremendous interest, that the U.S. would withdraw from the entire Asian region and that the resulting vacuum would be filled by a “Pacific Asia Treaty Organization (PATO)” with Japan acting as its leader.

Will China continue to strengthen its influence? Or will Japan, on its own or in collaboration with Australia, help reinforce the U.S.? Or will introverted American public opinion become extroverted, will U.S. finances become healthy and will an aggressive U.S. leader appear? It is likely that new waves will heave in the Pacific.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the November issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, social and economic scenes.

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