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US struggles to offer single voice in Asia policy

Publication Date : 24-03-2014


US Secretary of State John Kerry did not hesitate to warn China over the air defense identification zone it created over the East China Sea, and against establishing a similar zone in the South China Sea, in meetings in China on February 14 with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Foreign Minister Wang Yi and others, calling it, “very challenging…to regional stability”.

The administration of US President Barack Obama has made known its intention to “rebalance” its diplomatic policy toward Asia through greater military and economic focus on the region.

The United States hopes to benefit from stability and prosperity through this increased involvement in the Asia-Pacific region, where the economy has become increasingly significant while tensions are rising as China carries out a military build-up and a variety of provocative maritime activities.

Japan and other nations of the East China Sea and South China Sea, however, have expressed doubts about the effect of this rebalancing.

One reason for this skepticism is the mixed messaging from the core of the Obama administration.

Prior to US Vice President Joseph Biden’s trip to East Asia in early December, US National Security Advisor Susan Rice gave a lecture on US policy on China on November 20.

“When it comes to China, we seek to operationalise a new model of major power relations,” she said. “That means managing inevitable competition while forging deeper cooperation on issues where our interests converge—in Asia and beyond.”

Her remarks gave the unmistakable impression that Washington is accepting of China’s move to build this new type of major power relationships.

On November 23, on the heels of Rice’s speech, China created an air defense identification zone over the East China Sea that included the airspace above the Senkaku Islands, increasing pressure on Japan.

In China, while Biden did express concern over the ADIZ to Xi, he also told him, “The thing that has impressed me from the beginning…is that you are candid, you are constructive in developing this new relationship.”

Biden also repeated the phrase “new model of major power relations” several times.

The website of British newspaper The Guardian said, “Joe Biden praised the Chinese president’s commitment to managing differences candidly.”

According to a high-ranking official of the Japanese Foreign Ministry, “China heard Rice’s speech and apparently thought, ‘Even if we declare an ADIZ before Biden’s visit, the US is unlikely to react strongly,’” suggesting that ambiguity in the Obama administration’s stance offered China an opening.

A Southeast Asian diplomatic source stationed in Tokyo called it “a win for China.”

At the start of the second Obama administration, Hillary Clinton stepped down as secretary of state and Kurt Campbell left his position as assistant secretary of state. Neither shied away from sending forceful messages to China.

Kerry, Clinton’s replacement, is said to be more interested in the Middle East than Asia. Rice, who advises the president on diplomatic policy, is likewise not especially knowledgeable about Asia and is more interested in finding ways to cooperate with China on economic and other issues, according to a US government source.

“The US does not intend to go one particular way. They want to build good relations with China, but also to strengthen ties with its allies to hedge risk,” said Toshihiro Nakayama, a professor at Aoyama Gakuin University and an expert on US politics and diplomacy. “It’s difficult to discern what the Obama administration’s core message is.”

Indeed, Japan’s ambassador to the United States, Kenichiro Sasae, made the following somewhat unusual statement about the posture of the United States at a January 29 symposium in Washington: “We also want to see the United States make clear who are the friends and allies and troublemakers and potential problem-makers,” he said.

Obama is scheduled to visit Japan, the Philippines and two other Asian nations in April. Will he clear away the concerns that have cast a shadow over Japan and Southeast nations on that trip?

Abe’s ‘global diplomacy’

Under the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan has sought to maintain and develop the Japan-US alliance as its diplomatic foundation, and also to carry out diplomacy with a global outlook by independently strengthening ties with a wide range of nations as part of its strategy against China.

Since the launch of his second Cabinet just over fourteen months ago, Abe has visited 31 countries, including all 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and nations where Chinese influence has expanded, including 11 nations in the Middle East and Africa.

Abe has met five times with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose nation borders China, and hosted the first two-plus-two meeting of both nations’ defense and foreign ministers.

While some in the US government have expressed doubt over Japan’s attempt to bolster ties with Russia, voices of praise have also been conveyed to the Japanese government, such as one US expert who approached the endeavour as Japan’s independent diplomatic strategy with regards to China.

Through its global diplomatic strategies, the government aims to promote basic values such as freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law, a high-ranking foreign ministry source said.

“We want to apply pressure through the international community on China and its attempts to use force to change the status quo,” the source said.


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