Mideast conflicts, Snowden revelations and domestic woes, the U.S. remains true to its course of being a dominant Asia-Pacific power committed to increasing America's influence in the region as a hedge against the increasingly assertive China. In October President Obama had to scrap the APEC summit in Bali and the East Asia summit in Brunei because of the budget impasse and resulting government shutdown in Washington. His absence led many in the region to wonder whether it remained a priority while disputes seem to be boiling over, threatening instability in a region that's vital to the U.S. economy. Some commentators felt the cancellations amounted to a strategic withdrawal making the Obama administration's much-ballyhooed «pivot to Asia» run out of puff. Plans to increase U.S. influence, military presence and diplomatic outreach in Asia have been complicated by Iran, Syria and Egypt. In Washington, the abysmal rollout of Obama's health care law and intense gridlock in Congress have kept the White House bogged down in domestic matters.
Recently the US diplomatic activities in the region are on the rise. This includes the October visits by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and State Secretary John Kerry, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew visiting the region last month, the just wrapped-up Biden’s trip, as well as the Obama’s planned visit in April.
Tensions in the region are at their highest in years… China and Japan have squared off over a chain of uninhabited islands in a feud that has some observers warning of the danger of an armed confrontation. Media reports have generally linked U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden's Asia trip with the exacerbation of the situation due to China's newly declared Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). Japan and South Korea have sent military aircraft into the zone in recent days, after U.S. aircraft had flown over the area a few days before. US Vice-President Joseph Biden has just wrapped up his week-long trip started on December 2 meetings with leaders in Japan, China and South Korea. «I want to make one thing absolutely clear: President Obama's decision to rebalance to the Pacific basin is not in question», Biden said meeting the South Korean leader Geun-hye.
Both the US and Japan have voiced strong criticism of China's establishment of an ADIZ that includes islands claimed and controlled by Japan. Mr. Abe repeated his criticism of the Chinese move, and said Japan and the US would co-ordinate their response. «We should not tolerate the attempt by China to change the status quo unilaterally by force. We will continue to work closely in dealing with the situation based on a strong US-Japan alliance», he said. Some say that Tokyo wants to dramatize the ADIZ issue in order to involve Washington in a conflict with China. Japan had planned to ask Washington to take part in a formal statement demanding that China rescind its ADIZ. Biden did not go along with the plan. Instead, he called on Japan and China to find ways to reduce tensions over the issue. Biden also discussed efforts to advance a broad U.S.-Asia trade agreement known as the Trans Pacific Partnership.
Early October US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel hatched an agreement with Japan to broaden the security ties. The US Air Force will begin flying a handful of Global Hawk surveillance drones which can fly for more than 28 hours at a time from an undetermined base in Japan next spring. This is the first time such drones will be based in East Asia. The unmanned drones are deeply coveted in northeast Asia for high-altitude visibility far and wide. Strengthening the US alliance with Japan is central to Obama’s strategy of containing China. The Japanese military has always been equipped with hi-tech hardware. Japan’s latest annual defense report specifically identifies China and its naval capacities as a threat. The Obama administration has encouraged Japan to take a stronger stance over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. It plans to deploy troops on southwestern Yonaguni Island, in the East China Sea by 2015. Last October six Osprey tilting rotor aircraft flew to their new home base Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan, Okinawa.
In April 2012 the US and Japan signed a bilateral defense-cooperation agreement. It calls for strengthening interoperability between U.S. and Japanese forces and building permanent training facilities on Guam and in the nearby Northern Mariana Islands.
Japan has emerged as the most important U.S. partner in crafting a layered shield against ballistic missiles of all ranges. Tokyo was seeking a potential $421 million sea-based Aegis aid defense system upgrade for two guided-missile destroyers to fend off ballistic missile attacks. The US fifth-generation aircraft F-35 has already been selected to replace aging F-4s as its next mainstay fighter, a deal valued at more than $5 billion. Japan says it studies the idea of putting mobile radars and communication systems on the disputed islands near the Japan-controlled Senkakus, which Beijing calls the Diaoyus. There are reports the government is considering permanently stationing F-15 fighter jets on Shimoji, a small island near the Senkakus.
Meeting with South Korean President Park Geun-hye in Seoul, Mr. Biden said the 60-year military alliance between the two countries was as strong as ever, amid regional tensions over China's declaration of a new air defence identification zone and North Korea's nuclear weapons program. In talks with South Korean President Park Geun-Hye and later in a speech at Seoul's Yonsei University, Biden said the United States had warned North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that Pyongyang would never achieve prosperity as long as it continued to pursue nuclear arms, «The United States and the world have to make it absolutely clear to Kim Jong Un that the international community will not accept or tolerate nuclear arms in North Korea», Biden said. He added that the US was prepared to reengage with the so-called six-party nuclear talks, which North Korea called off in 2008, overturning commitments made under a 2005 disarmament deal. «We are prepared to go back to the six-party talks when North Korea demonstrates its full commitment to a complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization», the Vice President noted.
South Korea declares air defense identification zone
South Korea has declared an expanded air defense zone that partly overlaps one recently announced by China. South Korea's Defense Ministry said on December 8 that the new zone, which will take effect on December 15, will include Ieodo, a submerged reef in waters off the south coast, which China calls Suyan. As well as Ieodo rock, South Korea's Defence Ministry also said the new military air defence zone would cover the airspace above Marado and Hongdo islands controlled by Seoul in waters south of the peninsula. The new parameters are a direct challenge to China's own air defence zone, which covers part of the same area. The U.S. State Department has said that the South Korean government had conferred with the United States in advance of Seoul's decision, including in the meeting between U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and President Park Geun-hye in Seoul.
South Korea has already challenged China's attempt to impose its authority in the area by flying military planes through the zone announced by Beijing. Commercial airlines in South Korea have also been advised not to comply with China's demands for planes to identify themselves to it.
South Korea's announcement came in response to China's November 23 decision to create a new air zone that overlaps territory claimed by South Korea and Japan in the East China Sea. China said all aircraft intending to enter the zone must first submit a flight plan, with Chinese officials reserving the right to deny access. The U.S., Japan and South Korea have sent military planes into the zone in recent days, defying China's demand they notify Beijing beforehand. China has not interfered with the flights, but has scrambled fighter jets to the area, heightening concerns about a possible miscalculation in the air. The upshot could be greater instability, with the ever-present danger that an incident between warships or aircraft could precipitate a localized conflict between China and Japan or South Korea. The United States has about 70,000 troops in Japan and South Korea and has de-facto control of the airspace over the East China Sea. US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel repeated that the disputed islands are covered by the US – Japan security treaty. This means America would defend Japan if the area is attacked. The consequences of such an encounter risk an escalation that could ultimately draw in other powers.
Vice President Biden said in a speech on December 6 at a university in Seoul that the United States does not recognize China's air defense zone. Biden said he has stressed to China's President Xi Jinping during a visit to Beijing, that the US military would not recognize its demand that it receive prior warning if planes plan to enter the zone. «I was absolutely clear on behalf of my president: We do not recognize the zone. It will have no effect on American operations. None. Zero», Biden said.
In a sharp rebuff to the United States, China accused Washington on December 4 of taking Japan’s side in a tense clash over disputed islands in the East China Sea, underscoring rising regional friction as visiting Vice-President Joe Biden met with Beijing’s leaders. An editorial in the state media China Daily charged, however, that Washington «is turning a blind eye to Tokyo’s provocations», calling that the «root cause of the tensions», It said that «the United States is wrongly pointing an accusing finger at China for ’unilaterally’ changing the ’status quo’ in the East China Sea». The awkward kickoff for a series of official meetings in Beijing followed Biden’s speech earlier in the day urging young Chinese citizens to challenge orthodoxy and the status quo. The Vice-President drew an implicit contrast between the authoritarian rule of China’s government and the liberal, permissive intellectual culture he described in the United States. For positive change to come, people needed to «challenge the government, challenge religious leaders», he went on in an outright interference into China’s internal affairs. This kind of wording resembles brazen interference into Ukraine’s internal affairs by Western leaders, including US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland (speaking at an OSCE session), that we are witnessing today as the Euromaidan related events unfold there.
The U.S. refuses to recognize the zone, but Biden has avoided calling publicly for Beijing to rescind it, wary of making demands that China is likely to snub. According to him, the zone had caused «apprehension» in Asia. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said: «During the talks the Chinese side repeated its principled position, stressing that the Chinese move accorded with international law and practice». North Korea and the discords on the treatment of foreign journalists were also the issues on the agenda. After meeting with Biden, Xi Jinping said the U.S.-China relationship had gotten off to a good start this year «and has generally maintained a momentum of positive development». But he said the global situation is changing, with more pronounced challenges and regional hotspots that keep cropping up.
In June when Xi Jinping met with Obama in California, they agreed to establish a new type of great power relationship and avoid the «Thucydides trap» – the belief that war is likely when an established power meets a rising power. They agreed to avoid conflict and confrontation, and cooperate to achieve win-win results. In his talk with Biden, Xi Jinping stressed that the world is undergoing complex changes, and that it is not tranquil. China and the US, as the world's major economies and two permanent members of UNSC, share the responsibility to maintain world peace and stability and promote development. Xi called for the two sides to respect each other's core interests and major concerns. He proposed that both sides maintain high-level strategic communication, promote the development of mechanisms such as the China-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue, high-level consultations on people-to-people exchanges and maintain close military exchanges. As trade serves as an engine driving Sino-U.S. relations forward, Xi suggested that both sides expand cooperation in trade, infrastructure, urbanization and food security. As one can see the China’s position is balanced enough to discuss the thorny issues of regional stability calmly, it is hardly the stance of a bully concentrating of ADIZ as the only controversial issue for bilateral talks.