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China's increasing frictions with neighbors up U.S. influence, leverage in Asia

September 26, 2010

China's increasing frictions with neighbors up U.S. influence, leverage in Asia
Edward Wong
The New York Times
September 23, 2010

BEIJING -- For the past several years, one big
theme has dominated talk of Asia's future: As
China rises, its neighbors are being inevitably
drawn into its orbit, currying favor 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
neighbors in recent weeks over security issues
have handed the United States 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 United States 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 U.S. 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 United States is willing to help them
peacefully settle South China Sea territorial disputes with China.

"The U.S. has been smart," said Carlyle A.
Thayer, a professor at the Australian Defense
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."

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 neighbors.

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 United States 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 United States 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 U.S.-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 United
States 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 United States supported
multilateral talks. Freedom of navigation in the
sea is a U.S. 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, criticized any attempt at
mediation by the United States.

"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.

China has been objecting to U.S. plans to hold
military exercises with South Korea in the Yellow
Sea, which China claims as its exclusive military
operations zone. The United States 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 U.S. military.

U.S. officials are increasingly concerned about
the modernization of the Chinese navy and its
long-range abilities. 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 U.S. official said in an
interview after the visit. U.S. officials also
object to China's telling foreign oil companies
in recent years not to work with Vietnam on
developing oil fields in the South China Sea.

Some Chinese military leaders and analysts see a
U.S. effort to contain China. Feng Zhaokui, a
Japan scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social
Sciences, said in an article Tuesday in the
Global Times, a populist newspaper, that the
United States 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," he continued, "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 emphasized 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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