China's disputes in Asia buttress US influence

For the past several years, one big theme has dominated talk of Asia’s future: As China rises, its neighbours are being inevitably drawn into its orbit, currying favour with the region’s new hegemonic power.

The presumed loser, of course, is the United States, whose wealth and influence is being spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and whose economic troubles have eroded its standing in a more dynamic Asia.

But rising frictions between China and its neighbours in recent weeks over security issues have handed the US an opportunity to reassert itself — one the Obama administration has been keen to take advantage of.

Washington is leaping into the middle of heated territorial disputes between China and Southeast Asian nations despite stern Chinese warnings that it mind its own business. The US is carrying out naval exercises with South Korea in order to help Seoul rebuff threats from North Korea even though China is denouncing those exercises, saying that they intrude on areas where the Chinese military operates.

Meanwhile, China’s increasingly tense standoff with Japan over a Chinese fishing trawler captured by Japanese ships in disputed waters is pushing Japan back under the US security umbrella.

The arena for these struggles is shifting this week to a summit meeting of world leaders at the United Nations. Wen Jiabao, the Chinese prime minister, has refused to meet with his Japanese counterpart, Naoto Kan, and Tuesday he threatened Japan with ‘further action’ if it did not unconditionally release the fishing captain.

On Friday, President Barack Obama is expected to meet with Southeast Asian leaders and promise that the US is willing to help them peacefully settle South China Sea territorial disputes with China.

“The US has been smart,” said Carlyle A Thayer, a professor at the Australian defence force academy, who studies security issues in Asia. “It has done well by coming to the assistance of countries in the region.”

“All across the board, China is seeing the atmospherics change tremendously,” Thayer added. “The idea of the China threat, thanks to its own efforts, is being revived.”

Creating a wedge

Asserting Chinese sovereignty over borderlands in contention — everywhere from Tibet to Taiwan to the South China Sea — has long been the top priority for Chinese nationalists, an obsession that overrides all other concerns. But this complicates China’s attempts to present the country’s rise as a boon for the whole region and creates wedges between China and its neighbours.

Nothing underscores that better than the escalating diplomatic conflict between China and Japan over the detention of the Chinese fishing captain, Zhang Qixiong, by Japanese authorities, who say the captain rammed two Japanese vessels around the Senkaku or Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea. The islands are administered by Japan but claimed by both Japan and China.

The current dispute may strengthen the military alliance between the US and Japan, as did an incident in April when a Chinese helicopter buzzed a Japanese destroyer. Such confrontations tend to remind Japanese officials, who have suggested that they need to refocus their foreign policy on China instead of America, that they rely on the US to balance an unpredictable China, analysts say.

“Japan will have no choice but to further go into America’s arms, to further beef up the US-Japan alliance and its military power,” said Huang Jing, a scholar of the Chinese military at the National University of Singapore.

In July, Southeast Asian nations, particularly Vietnam, applauded when secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton said that the US was willing to help mediate a solution to disputes that those nations had with China over the South China Sea, which is rich in oil, natural gas and fish. China insists on dealing with Southeast Asian nations one on one, but Clinton said the US supported multilateral talks. Freedom of navigation in the sea is a US national interest, she said.

Obama meets Friday with leaders from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN. The Associated Press reported that the participants would issue a joint statement opposing the “use or threat of force by any claimant attempting to enforce disputed claims in the South China Sea.” The statement is clearly aimed at China, which has seized Vietnamese fishing vessels in recent years and detained their crews.
On Tuesday, a Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman, Jiang Yu, criticised any attempt at mediation by the US. “We firmly oppose any country having nothing to do with the South China Sea issue getting involved in the dispute,” she said at a news conference in Beijing.

US role in South Korea

China has been objecting to US plans to hold military exercises with South Korea in the Yellow Sea, which China claims as its exclusive military operations zone. The US and South Korea want to send a stern message to North Korea over what Seoul says was the torpedoing in March of a South Korean warship by a North Korean submarine. China’s belligerence serves only to reinforce South Korea’s dependence on the US military.
Growing American involvement in the region comes at a time when US officials are increasingly concerned about the modernisation of China’s navy and its long-range abilities, as well as China’s growing assertiveness in the surrounding waters. In March, a Chinese official told White House officials visiting Beijing that the South China Sea was part of China’s ‘core interest’ of sovereignty, similar to Tibet and Taiwan, a US official said in an interview at the time. US officials also object to China’s telling foreign oil companies not to work with Vietnam on developing oil fields in the South China Sea.

Some Chinese military leaders and analysts see a US effort to contain China. Feng Zhaokui, a Japan scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said in an article in ‘The Global Times’, a populist newspaper, that the US was trying to “nurture a coalition against China.”

In August, Rear Adm Yang Yi wrote an editorial for ‘The PLA Daily’, published by the Chinese Army, in which he said that on one hand, Washington “wants China to play a role in regional security issues. On the other hand, it is engaging in an increasingly tight encirclement of China and is constantly challenging China’s core interests.”

Asian countries suspicious of Chinese intentions see Washington as a natural ally. In April, the incident involving the Chinese helicopter and Japanese destroyer spooked many in Japan, making them feel vulnerable at a time when Yukio Hatoyama, then the prime minister, had angered Washington with his pledges to relocate a Marine Corps air base away from Okinawa.

His successor, Kan, has sought to smooth out ties with Washington and has emphasised that the alliance is the cornerstone of Japanese foreign policy.

“Insecurity about China’s presence has served as a wake-up call on the importance of the alliance,” said Fumiaki Kubo, a professor of public policy at the University of Tokyo.

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