Biden's Asia challenge: Can he reassure US allies without inflaming passions?

The declaration by China of an air defense zone in the East China Sea has sparked concerns among America's Asian allies over US resolve in the region that Biden is seeking to allay.

Koji Sasahara/AP
Vice President Joe Biden waves upon arriving at Tokyo International Airport, Dec. 2. Biden is in Tokyo to meet with Japan's prime minister and lawmakers for the first leg of his Asia tour that includes China and South Korea.

How serious is President Obama about his foreign policy “pivot to Asia”?

Vice President Joe Biden, who is touring the region this week, will try to calm growing doubts among key US allies there regarding Mr. Obama’s commitment to that pillar of his administration’s policy, which sought to “rebalance” America’s focus and resources away from the Middle East and toward a rising Asia.

The immediate cause for concern in Tokyo, Seoul, and other Asian capitals – and the impetus for Mr. Biden’s trip to Japan, China, and South Korea – is China’s recent declaration of an air defense zone over a broad swath of territory encompassing regionally disputed parts of the East China Sea.

Yet while allaying concerns about the US response to China’s latest action may top Biden’s agenda, he’ll also need to address a deeper unease over US resolve in the region as China emerges as a dominant economic and military power, some Asia analysts say.

“America’s Asian allies have growing questions about US resolve and US resources for carrying out” the Asia pivot, says Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow in North Asia issues at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “Now add in China’s growing assertiveness as we’re seeing” in the air defense zone declaration, he adds, “and it’s making those allies all the more nervous.”      

The US, which quickly rejected China’s claim to the airspace, responded to Beijing’s announcement that aircraft entering the space should inform Chinese authorities and submit flight plans by sending B-52s unannounced into the zone last week.

“We view this development as a destabilizing attempt to alter the status quo in the region,” Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said last week. At the same time, US officials point out privately that declaring an air defense zone is not the same as declaring sovereignty over an area. And while they expect Biden to underscore the difference, they also emphasize that China’s declaration can only increase the tensions that have flared over conflicting territorial claims in the East China Sea.    

The zone Beijing is claiming overlaps significantly with airspace claimed by Japan, and to a lesser degree with airspace claimed by South Korea. The zone also covers a group of small uninhabited islands – called the Senkaku by the Japanese, and Diaoyu by China – that are claimed by both countries (as well as by Taiwan) and that have been the source of recent regional tensions.   

Washington has quietly advised commercial aircraft to submit flight plans to Chinese authorities – a step Biden will no doubt hear plenty about when he meets with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and other Japanese officials on Tuesday. With some of the Japanese press and even some former Japanese officials openly expressing concern over what they see as American deference to Beijing, Biden will be seeking a delicate balance of reassuring the Japanese even as he presses for regional diplomacy to defuse the long-smoldering issue of competing territorial claims.

China, which remained relatively quiet last year on simmering territorial issues as it completed its leadership transition, is now stepping up efforts to put its security polices into practice, some regional analysts say.

While China continues to believe that it has a window of regional calm in which it can focus on domestic issues, these analysts add, the Chinese also worry that the period of calm faces challenges from a number of fronts – including US actions aimed at reinforcing its status as a Pacific power.

Recent policy papers and other documents issued by the Chinese government “have affirmed the continuing validity of China’s primary external strategic guideline – its judgment that China has a ‘period of strategic opportunity’ extending through 2020 in which a benign external security environment allows it to focus on its internal development,” says Michael Green, senior vice-president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, writing on the center’s website. “That said, these [assessments] also suggest that the ‘period of strategic opportunity’ is under ‘unprecedented stress,’ ” he adds, “and that the US rebalance is the source of that stress.”

Others in the region are also anxious over the American “rebalance” – only for different reasons, says Heritage’s Mr. Klingner. For the Japanese, South Koreans, and others, the worry is that the “pivot” will be too little – “more rhetoric than reality,” he says – rather than too much.

Biden can offer all the reassurances in his satchel, Klingner says, but he adds that US allies in the region know as much as anyone about US defense cuts – and what those cuts are likely to mean for US resources in the region.

“A major piece of Biden’s trip will be to reassure our allies about US relevance, US influence, and US support in response to these threats” including China’s growing assertiveness, says Klingner. But “given the reality” of US resources in the region and prospects for a reinforced presence, he adds, “those allies are far from being reassured.”

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