Is The US Losing Its Grip on Asia?


Washington’s absence in Asia is a massive security problem

The danger of East Asia on its own

An Asia without the United States is a much scarier place. China’s increasing military might is causing anxiety among its neighbors. Nowhere is this more obvious or more potentially dangerous than in Japan. As shown by Shinzo Abe’s push towards expanding his nation’s military capacities, Japan has lost confidence in Washington’s guarantee of unconditional military support. A military buildup by Tokyo would throw kerosene on the anti-Japanese nationalist fires already smoldering in China. The entire East Asian region is a tinderbox of unresolved historical issues. While nobody can predict whether conflict might break out in the near future, a small incident between China and Japan could easily escalate uncontrollably.

What should be Obama’s East Asia policy in 2014

Priority number one for Obama in 2014 is to assure Abe beyond any doubt that the United States will not abandon Japan in a crisis. Washington should also play a stronger role in confronting Beijing in response to aggressive actions such as the establishment by Beijing of its expansive Air Defense Identification Zone. If Beijing is allowed to change the security status quo in East Asia any time the United States is distracted by events elsewhere, then Washington has already lost control over security in the region. American involvement in East Asia is just as important now as it has been since 1945. The United States cannot contain the military ambitions of Beijing, but it can maintain the regional status quo that is the result of a strong American military allied with Japan and South Korea. In order to do this, in 2014 Obama needs to make his as-of-now underwhelming pivot towards Asia a reality.

In the long term

The escalating tensions in the East China Sea will no doubt continue as China fights for more influence against a security situation dominated by the United States and its allies. China is averse to any moves that it believes could generate a larger conflict, however, when Beijing sees an opportunity to challenge Japan or the United States without the risk of retaliation, it acts. Over time, Washington could become trapped in a cold war-type situation as it competes with an expanding China for regional control. Ideological differences mean that cooperation and trust between Washington and Beijing is superficial, as both sides fear losing control to the other. If Washington is going to win the struggle for control in Asia, it will need the backing of its traditional allies as well as the support of greater East Asia. To do this, Washington must demonstrate an unwavering commitment to the region by engagement and participation in regional dialogue at the highest level, an area where Obama failed in 2013. A good start will be attending the 2014 Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Beijing.