Beijing recently announced that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was simply not welcome there. At the same time, the media in both countries have stoked the fire with speculation about a possible military confrontation that could even suck in the United States, which is bound by treaty to defend Japan in case of attack.
U.S. officials and experts say conflict between the Asian powers remains unlikely, with both sides keen to preserve economic ties, and neither likely to emerge as a clear winner.
Nevertheless, as naval vessels spar in disputed waters and fighter jets patrol disputed skies, the risk of accidents or miscalculations has risen. Maintaining peace in Asia’s seas has become a major U.S. concern in the year ahead, officials say.
Obama had hoped his foreign policy “pivot” toward Asia would shift U.S. government attention away from trouble spots like Afghanistan and Iraq and toward a region brimming with economic opportunities. It aimed to strengthen longstanding alliances in Asia and bring new resolve to managing the relationship with China.
But experts say the U.S. effort to deepen relations with both China and its traditional Asian allies could become an impossible balancing act.
“In a perfect world you could do both simultaneously without conflict, but in practice, whatever you do with one side, the other side sees it as being done against them,” said Ely Ratner at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.
Daniel Russel, assistant U.S. secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said the security umbrella provided by Washington had preserved regional peace for decades. The rebalance merely reinforces that commitment to Asia in a time of rising Chinese influence and assertiveness, he argued.
But some experts argue that the current emphasis on strengthening security links with Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Australia and the Philippines could actually be raising regional tensions.
“It is only encouraging those in China who have been saying for some time that Americans have reverted to Cold War thinking, and this is part of a containment strategy,” said Mel Gurtov, a professor of political science at Portland State University, and editor of the Asian Perspectivejournal.
America’s alliance with Japan means the United States is far from a neutral party in the China-Japan spat, “and the most important relationship we have to cultivate, with China, is bound to suffer.
In a sign of the increasing strain in U.S.-China relations, , American lawmakers warned last week at a House subcommittee hearing that the United States must not tolerate China’s use of military coercion in pursuit of its territorial claims. Beijing’s nationalist Global Times newspaper responded by arguing that U.S. meddling risked “triggering an all-out confrontation with China,” – although the paper simultaneously advocated restraint and cooperation.
Tensions escalated in late November after China imposed an air defense identification zone over vast swathes of the East China Sea, including over islandsadministered by the Japanese. It demanded that all noncommercial aircraft entering the zone identify themselves or face “defensive emergency measures”. Calling China’s bluff, the United States flew two B-52 bombers through the zone within days.
Then, in December, Abe paid a visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, where 14 war criminals from World War II are honored. That stoked anger in both China and South Korea, where memories of Japanese wartime atrocities remain fresh, and prompted Beijing’s declaration that Abe had “shut the door to dialogue.”
U.S. efforts to calm tensions have so far had little apparent effect. Indeed, it is not clear either side is paying Washington much attention: U.S. officials say they learned less than an hour in advance about the air defense zone -- which came just before Vice President Biden’s visit to the region-- and got little notice about Abe’s visit to the shrine
Russel said the roll-out of China’s air defense zone had increased the risk of “miscalculation and an accident” that could lead to conflict.
“This was not simply a failure to communicate,” he said in a telephone interview. “It was an action that bypassed a consultative, collaborative process, and is a type of behavior that is inconsistent with the stature and status that China clearly seeks in the region.”
The Yasukuni visit, he said, was a concern of a much lower order of magnitude, but was nevertheless “very disappointing.”
Russel said Obama’s efforts to build a relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping had improved channels of communication and given Washington the chance “to speak very directly and very candidly to China about our concerns.”
Nevertheless,Beijing is not backing down from its territorial claims. Indeed, this month it announced an effort to exert tighter control over fishing in the waters of the South China Sea, which are contested by countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines: the State Department called that move “provocative and potentially dangerous.”
For Washington, the immediate priority is crisis management -- getting both sides to agree to some rules of engagement in contested waters and skies, as well as encouraging them to set up hotlines.
“In the short term there is a crying need for a practical mechanism to prevent crises or manage them should they occur,” said Russel. “The critical thing in the short term is that no incident be allowed to trigger an escalatory cycle, and the environment and structures be put in place that minimize the risk of an incident taking place at all.”
The problem is that leaders on both sides are more concerned with appeasing domestic nationalists and not losing face than with listening to their foreign friends.
Back-channel diplomatic links have dried up, while even business and cultural visits and exchanges between Japan and China have been cancelled in recent weeks.
“Without a summit to show some thaw in political relations, there is very little diplomats or line agencies can do to walk back tensions, or talk about any of the crisis management that is needed,” said Yanmei Xie, a Beijing-based expert for the International Crisis Group.
Abe’s Yasukuni visit also widened the divide between two of America’s closest allies in the region, Japan and South Korea. Beijing is already exploiting that divide, trying to strengthen its economic and diplomatic ties with Seoul and isolate Tokyo, experts say.
Christopher Johnson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said Washington’s toolkit for resolving the problem was limited.
“We have rhetorical pressure, which we are using, and we have the Seventh Fleet, which nobody wants to use, and in between our options are more constrained,” he said.
In April, Obama is scheduled to visit Asia but will bypass Beijing – ostensibly because he will be travelling there later in the year for an Asian summit. “The Chinese,” said Johnson, “are likely to read more menacing implications into the decision.”