September 2013

Political analysts have linked the current US, China and Japan conundrum to that of the UK, Germany and France exactly one century ago, before the brink of World War I. In 1914, many Europeans inaccurately predicted that the interdependent nature of Britain and Germany’s economies was indispensable and would thwart any chance of serious conflict. Precisely 100 years later, the US and China represent the world’s top two economies, serving as major trading partners amid a highly globalized world economy. Despite this fact, tensions in the East China Sea between China and America’s ally, Japan, are escalating to pandemic proportions, leaving the threat of serious regional and global implications looming.

None of these three countries can afford a full-scale war. However, a bloody history between these East Asian heavyweights and the increasingly rampant nationalism on both sides has transformed their ‘hot economy, cold politics’ relationship into a political freeze that no amount of warm trade ties can soften. The US-Japanese defense pact has left America in the middle of an increasingly sensitive sovereignty dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, augmenting angst within the global community.

Unfortunately, the West, particularly the current US administration, is not as worried as it should be. America’s 2011 ‘Pivot to Asia’ brought with it a commitment to deploy 60 percent of its naval resources to the Pacific. But a series of leadership changes in Obama’s second term has left America’s ‘rebalance’ coming up short on diplomatic relations. Unlike Hillary Clinton’s continuous support towards South Asian allies during numerous key visits, Secretary of State John Kerry’s gaze has remained focused on Middle East quagmires. The President’s cancellation of his December APEC trip was a disappointment to many Southeast Asian nations who were gaining a new appreciation for US military presence on their land as China’s neighborhood bullying continues to intensify in the South China Sea.

Since Nixon’s icebreaking visit to Beijing in 1973, US policy towards China has been formulated on the belief that engaging China in the global arena would prevent it from becoming another tyrannical North Korea. US support for China’s entrance into the World Trade Organization in 2000 was done with the hope that the country would be forced to follow international order, something that has largely been realized over the past three decades. But as China’s robust economy continues to develop at a blistering pace, the world is finding itself increasingly financially reliant on this progressively assertive and unpredictable nation. President Xi Jinping’s administration has brought more liberal economic reforms but more conservative political stances that are leaving the US and its global partners little room for political maneuvering; e.g., the establishment of China’s controversial Air Defense Identification Zone.

Much of this century’s strategic, political and economic future in Asia will likely be shaped by decisions made in Washington, Beijing and Tokyo over the next decade. As China lacks the capacity to develop a framework for redefining US-China relations, it is up to America to exercise leadership and formulate a strategy that will allow it to back Japan and other Asian allies while maintaining ties with its number two trading partner, China. America remains, and will continue to be, the leading power in the Asia Pacific. However, whether the rebalance drifts towards cooperation or competition will depend on America’s ability to contain China while continuing to engage it in the international community. Complacency coupled with ineffective policy execution may lead to disastrous consequences, and the rift blowing across the East China Sea could be the brink of a repeat in history.