Viewpoint: Collision course: U.S. vs. Japan vs. China

A major storm is looming in the Asia-Pacific.

The United States’ strategy of “Pivot to Asia,” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s confrontational policy toward China, and China’s rapid rise and its assertive territorial claims in the East and South China Seas are adding up to a volatile brew in the region and many analysts and pundits are drawing parallels with the situation in Europe before the outbreak of World War I.

President Obama’s “Pivot to Asia,” writes Walden Bello, a columnist for the Foreign Policy in Focus, “is not novel. It is simply a return to the pre-9/11 global military posture of the Bush administration, which redefined China from being a ‘strategic partner’ to a ‘strategic competitor.’ The Pacific Pivot has intensified the already intense militarization of the region.”

Under the “Pivot to Asia” strategy, 60 percent of U.S. naval force has been shifted to the Asia-Pacific. The strategic shift has been accompanied by the accelerated deployment of U.S. Marine Corps from Okinawa to Guam and Australia. What is perhaps more significant, says Ninan Koshy of Asia Times, “the pivot strategy announces the beginning of a new Cold War.

If the theater of the old Cold War was Europe, the new theater is the Asia-Pacific. In fact, implicit in the pivot is a long drawn out cold war between the U.S. and China which promises to be more intense in strategic brinkmanship than the earlier cold war between the West and the Soviet Union. … The U.S.-backed governments in the Asia-Pacific are also increasingly trying to convince their populations that China is the principal enemy.”

While the U.S. “Asia Pivot” has prompted China’s anxiety about a U.S.-led containment, there is another source of destabilization in the Asia-Pacific region: Japan.

The July 21 Japanese upper house election was a vote of confidence for Prime Minister Abe’s push for the abolition of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, which prevents Japan from having an army, and his confrontational approach with China.

“Victory has made it possible to fulfill Abe’s plan to alter the Japanese constitution,” reports Michael Burns of Asia Times, “this is a hawkish move, but has growing resonance in Japan in recent years. Shinzo Abe’s upper-house election victory gives the Japanese prime minister control of both houses of the national legislature, making it possible for a radical overhaul of the country’s constitution that could see a new defense force emerge and even the restoration of the Rising Sun flag.”

The last but not the least destabilizing source is China. As Robert Sutter of George Washington University points out, “China’s tough stance on maritime territorial disputes, evident in the confrontations with the Philippines in the South China Sea and with Japan in the East China Sea, now marks an important shift in China’s foreign policy with serious implications for China’s neighbors.”

Beijing is now claiming virtually the entire South China Sea – a body of water that is 3.5 million square kilometers in size and borders six states, through which transits one third of the world’s shipping – as Chinese territory.

“If allowed to stand,” says Ninan Koshy, “the Chinese claim will amount to one of the greatest maritime grabs in history. Beijing’s moves have alarmed its neighbors. But more disturbing is the fact that Beijing may be forcing them, including Washington’s former enemy Vietnam, into the hands of the United States by allowing Washington to portray itself as a military savior or ‘balancer’ to Beijing.”

As the world’s three largest economies are all flexing their military muscle in the Asia-Pacific, the region as a whole is becoming much more unstable. And conflict and confrontation, not cooperation and compromise, are becoming the norm in the Asia-Pacific.

Xiaoxiong Yi is the director of Marietta College’s China Program. His column usually appears in the weekend edition.