Sino-US talks nosedive over Japan

United States Vice-President Joe Biden’s trip to Asia was supposed to focus on economic co-operation. Instead, it is being dominated by the row over China’s new air defence identification zone.

"It’s definitely a damage control mission," said Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, Asia-Pacific director at the US Institute of Peace.

"Hopefully it will calm things down a bit and there might be an agreement. Possibly as a result of the trip we might not see huge amounts of scrambling jets in an aggressive way by China."

China has already brushed aside US calls for it to scrap its procedures for the zone. A more plausible outcome is tacit agreement from Tokyo and Beijing on what sort of behaviour is acceptable in the area.

But China sees the US as anything but a neutral arbiter. While the territorial dispute in the East China Sea has been driven very much by Sino-Japanese strife – in particular the chain of events that unfolded with the detention of a Chinese fishing boat captain and Japan’s purchase of three of the disputed islands from private hands – "the view in China is that Japan would never do this unless it was emboldened by the US", said Kleine-Ahlbrandt.

In the background are broader questions about influence in the Asia-Pacific region as a rising power exerts itself to the concern of neighbours and faces the world’s only superpower.

The US and Japan have a joint defence pact, but some diplomats suspect China does not believe the US is truly committed to backing up its ally. At the same time, the US hopes to prevent tensions between China and Japan from escalating.

"The US had to send B-52s; it couldn’t let Japan do it," said Kleine-Ahlbrandt.

"So the issue has enlarged itself to the great powers coming directly head to head … It has brought the US into [the broader East China Sea dispute] in a really direct way and thrown a lot of light on the great power dimensions of this conflict.

"Very prominent in this latest round is the sense that in China they would like the US to play a much lesser role in the region – and the US intends to remain in the region with no change whatsoever. That’s the bottom line of the struggle and it’s playing out here."

Some believe the Obama administration’s 2011 announcement of a "pivot" to Asia – refocusing its foreign policy towards the region – spurred Chinese fears of containment.

June Teufel Dreyer, an expert on the region at the University of Miami, suggested that, rather, it offered China an opportunity to assert itself.

"They never say they are taking the initiative to do something; they always say it is a response to something else," she noted.

"I don’t think it needs to be concerned actually … Given sequestration and the fact the US is unlikely to ever be able to extricate itself from the problems of the Middle East, we are not going to have the wherewithal to reinforce it. Obama’s intention was good but the policy somehow doesn’t seem to have been thought through very well.

"If I’m president and I announce a pivot to Asia, which I should know will give China a rationalisation for responding, I would first make sure I had the ability to put teeth in that, and a group of marines in Darwin probably isn’t enough."

Kleine-Ahlbrandt noted that the pivot was supposed to be a broad refocusing of foreign policy – not simply military – but that "the more rounded elements of it were botched". – © Guardian News & Media 2013

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