A lot has happened in Asia while the US was off fighting its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and most of it can be summed up in one word — China. Fueled by China’s amazing growth and the promise of its huge and expanding consumer market, the Asia-Pacific region is now, as experts like to say, the global economy’s center of gravity. Sorry, Europe.
However, prosperity requires stability.
As US President Barack Obama tours the region to push his year-old “pivot to the Pacific” policy, the big question on everybody’s mind is how much of a role Washington, with its mighty military and immense diplomatic clout, can play in keeping the Pacific — well, pacific.
Here follows a look at how different countries perceive the US’ Pacific policy and how it impacts them.
CHINA: HOW NOT TO
TRAIN YOUR DRAGON
As far as Beijing is concerned, Obama’s pivot was pulled right out of the old Cold War containment playbook. Afraid of China’s rise, Beijing believes, Washington is trying to enflame new tensions by isolating it and emboldening the countries that China has territorial disputes with, which is just about everybody with whom it shares a border.
“Using China’s rise and the ‘China threat’ theory, the US wants to convince China’s neighbors that Asia-Pacific needs Washington’s presence and protection in order to ‘unite’ them to strike a ‘strategic rebalance’ against China in the region,” security academic Wang Yusheng wrote recently in the China Daily.
It is a strategy that is bound to fail, Beijing says.
China sees its rise as inevitable and unstoppable and believes its neighbors will ultimately opt for stronger ties, while gradually excluding the US.
Beijing also views its economic dominance as an unalloyed good. As it tests out its first aircraft carrier, stealth jets, cyber-capabilities and high-tech missiles, it is in an increasingly strong position to deny Washington access to its shores as well as to some key Pacific sea lanes, which could be a problem if Obama’s pivot ever has to go from push to shove.
FEELING THE PINCH
Without a doubt, Japan is Washington’s most faithful security partner in the Pacific — and it is the most pinched by China’s rise.
For months, Japan and China have been in an increasingly tense dispute over a group of small, uninhabited islands in the East China Sea — the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台), known as the Senkakus in Japan, which Taiwan also claims.
The near-constant presence of Chinese ships around them has stretched the Japanese Coast Guard to its limits. Japan’s air force says Chinese surveillance flights in the area have increased significantly.
Wary of getting caught up in the volatile brew of nationalism, historical animosity and populist politics that is fueling the flare-up, the US has been careful not to take sides. Instead, it has urged the two countries to work out their problems among themselves, diplomatically.
That has confounded many in Japan, which hosts 52,000 US troops under a treaty signed in 1960 that obliges the US to defend territories under Japanese administration. Washington has repeatedly affirmed that includes the isles at the center of the current tensions with China. Tokyo would have preferred at least some moral support to its claim.
“It’s strange,” said Kazuhiko Togo, a former senior diplomat who now heads the Institute for World Affairs at Kyoto Sangyo University. “I trust the US as our ally, but we need to address this issue of US ‘neutrality.’”