“Asia has emerged as a diplomatic hornet’s nest,” according to The New York Times, “even beyond the perennial threat of North Korea.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in the midst of it all, trying to defuse “tension” between the United States, China and Japan. What is going on?
US commentators continue to dread a confrontation with China even as both powers are growing more interdependent every day. In spite of China’s economic ties across the region, there is fear moreover that East Asia is becoming something of a powder keg, about to explode any minute now.
There is real tension, of course. Although China and Japan are quickly becoming each other’s most important of trading partners, militarily they compete. The strong US military presence in Japan as well as its reluctance to sell the F-22 fighter airplane to Japan are complicating factors in a triangular relationship that is intricate to begin with.
The new Japanese government meanwhile is delaying the relocation of a US military base on the island of Okinawa despite Clinton’s demand that they “follow through on their commitments.” Three times, the secretary indicated that Washington is not open to compromise on the issue but Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama campaigned for moving the base off Okinawa or even out of Japan altogether, reasoning that Japan should pursue a foreign policy more independent of the United States — exactly because of its sometimes bellicose language toward China.
Then there’s Taiwan. Its president, Ma Ying-jeou, has been pursuing a more conciliatory policy toward China which still likes to consider the island a renegade province of the mainland. While 1,500 missiles stand aimed and ready to fire across the Strait, Taiwan is a healthy, capitalist democracy which, for the time being, is not stressing the matter of de jure independence. Rather, China and Taiwan are in negotiation to reduce import and travel restrictions between the two countries: a necessary move for Taiwan considering the recent creation of a Southeast Asian free-trade zone that makes the island less attractive as trading partner to China.
The United States is bound by law to arm Taiwan, however, and a recent sale of missiles met with strong Chinese disapproval. Sino-American relations are still shaky but as Clinton said last Tuesday, “America’s future is linked to the future of this region, and the future of this region depends on America.” Obama was even happy to call himself a “Pacific president” and for good reasons: East Asia is fast becoming the new core of the world economy while politically, its integration can be fragile at times. American involvement is able spark discontent but it also helps smooth over differences by providing great power leadership to those nations fearing Chinese domination.
The political discord should not be exaggerated. Today’s tension springs from relatively minor disagreements and will, in the end, be resolved.