America’s Asian balancing act

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America’s Asian balancing act

U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is currently touring Asia. This is his third visit since last October. With tensions rising over the territorial dispute surrounding the Senkaku Islands, or the Diaoyu Islands in Chinese, between Japan and China, Panetta is touring China after a stop in Japan. As soon as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton completed a tour of six countries in Asia and the Pacific and returned to Washington, the defense secretary hopped on a plane back to the region.

Since Clinton was appointed secretary of state in 2009, she has toured Asia 10 times, a record for U.S. secretaries of state. It is hard to find an Asian leader or foreign minister who has not yet met with Clinton. In 2010, U.S. President Barack Obama officially declared America’s return to Asia and the Pacific. He proclaimed himself America’s first Pacific president. Since then, the secretary of state and the defense secretary have been frequently visiting the region. Obama calls Asia his “first priority.”

After the Sept. 11 terror attacks in 2001, Washington’s foreign policy priorities were Afghanistan and Iraq. The U.S. poured tremendous amount of money and manpower into the Middle East and South Asia. As the missions in the Middle East and South Asia are concluding, Washington is shifting a considerable portion of military strength from Afghanistan and Iraq to the Asia-Pacific region. In order to counter China’s emergence as a major player in the world, the U.S. is making a strategic move to defend America’s global power.

Naturally, China is not comfortable with America’s return to Asia, its neighborhood. At the JoongAng Global Forum held in Seoul last week, the Chinese participants did not hide their uneasiness, as they think America’s ultimate goal is to “contain” China, or keep it from greatness.

Pan Zhenqiang, senior advisor of the China Reform Forum and a retired major general of the People’s Liberation Army, said: “The United States is strengthening ties with allies such as Korea, Japan and Australia and augmenting its military strength in Asia, mainly adding Navy and Air Force power, and its intention can only be interpreted as an attempt to blockade China militarily.”

However, American responds that China is making a unilateral claim to power in Asia while also neglecting its responsibilities. Martin Fackler, Tokyo bureau chief of the New York Times, says that Asian countries are threatened by China’s emergence and wants America to return to Asia and the Pacific. He cited America’s enhanced military cooperation with the Philippines and Vietnam, which are both in territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea. He argues that China’s emergence is the cause of it all.

Based on the nine-dotted line defined unilaterally by China in 1948, Beijing claims 80 percent of the South China Sea as its exclusive economic zone. According to its claim, the Paracel Islands, disputed between China and Vietnam, and the Spratly Islands, disputed between China and five Southeast Asian nations, are China’s.

Beijing is urging a resolution of the disputes through negotiations among the interested nations. It’s like drawing an EEZ border to the front of Baekryeong Island and demanding Korea negotiate sharing the gains from development.

America is walking on a tightrope. Washington is trying to bring Asian countries around to put a check on China, while, at the same time, it is trying to persuade Beijing that it has no intention of blockading China. Washington virtually took the sides of Asean countries and Japan in the territorial disputes in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, and placed a missile defense radar base on the Japanese islands.

But the U.S. claims that this is not a strategy to contain China. Convincing China of the good will inherent in its obvious hostile moves is a mission impossible. Its intention can easily be misunderstood as a desire to fan discord between China and its neighbors. China suspects that the U.S. may be aiding and abetting discord between Asian countries in order to secure a justification to intervene in Asian affairs.

According to the realist theories of international politics, discord between a declining American and emerging China is inevitable. But the U.S. wouldn’t be able to unilaterally lead Asian allies as it did during the cold war. China’s presence was nominal during the cold war, but it has risen as a solid Asian power. The critical moment has come as the power balance is changing. Countries like Korea, that have to maintain a balance between America and China, must be prudent.

So Seoul will try to read meaningful signals from America’s attitude about the disagreement over Dokdo with Japan. The U.S. is not free from a fundamental accountability in the controversy over Dokdo.

Moreover, Japan continues to avoid responsibility about the past. We have to ask the U.S. if it is really a wise choice to repeat “America’s stance is having no stance.”

* The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Bae Myung-bok
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