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Ukraine Developments Loom Over Obama Trip to Asia


President Barack Obama's trip to Asia this week comes as concerns about Beijing's territorial ambitions are growing in the region. Those concerns have been compounded by Russia's recent actions in Ukraine and the possibility that Chinese strategists might be looking to Crimea as a model for its territorial disputes with its neighbors.

Ukraine may seem far removed from events unfolding in one of the world's most dynamic regions, a key driver of the global economy, but it is clearly on the minds of U.S. officials.

Speaking at a security conference in Indonesia last month, Admiral Harry Harris, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, talked about the need for all countries in the region to work to avoid a Crimea type situation in the Pacific.
President Obama's Trip to Asia, Intinerary

President Obama's Trip to Asia, Intinerary

Earlier in April, Daniel Russel, assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs, told U.S. lawmakers that sanctions the U.S. and European Union placed on Russia should have a chilling effect on anyone in China who might be thinking about using Crimea as a model.

He also said the sanctions put pressure on China to show it is committed to peaceful resolution of its disputes in the region.

Over the past two years, China has put increasing pressure on Japan in a dispute over islands in the East China Sea. It has sent coast guard patrols and drones to assert its claims. Late last year, it unilaterally announced an air defense identification zone, which includes the islands.

Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a political scientist at Hong Kong Baptist University, said there is clearly a temptation for Beijing to try and alter the status quo. But, he added, there are big differences between China's disputes in Asia and what has happened on the Crimean peninsula.

"For one thing, Japan is a U.S. ally, there is a security treaty between Japan and the U.S., which compels the U.S. to intervene. China knows it, I think even more so today because the U.S. Obama administration has sent a number of very clear signals, clearer and clearer signals to China that the U.S. will be involved in any armed conflict around the Senkakus," said Cabestan.

Still, Cabestan said, it is hard to predict whether China may ultimately take inspiration from what Russia did in Crimea.

When it comes to the dispute over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, known as the Senkakus in Japan and Diaoyu islands in China, Beijing's options are limited.

Japan controls the islands and attempts to even land on them in the past by Chinese activists have not lasted long.

Xie Tao, a political scientist at Beijing Foreign Studies University, said that if the Chinese government was to support some sort of effort by fishermen or others to land on the islands for a period of time and then proclaim sovereignty, it may backfire.

"Everybody knows that the islands cannot sustain any long term human settlement and if you did that it would obviously be a trap that would be set up by the Chinese government that would only incur international criticism and international condemnation," said Xie.

The United States says it does not take sides in the disputes, be it in the East or South China Sea. However, Washington's effort to re-balance its position in the region by shoring up diplomatic, economic, political and security ties has raised concerns in China.

Some here see that effort, or "pivot to Asia" as it is called, as an attempt to contain Beijing's rise. They also argue that Washington's actions are emboldening its allies in the region to raise tensions.

Just days before President Obama embarks on his trip, Japan announced a decision to expand its military footprint, deploying troops and radar to an island near the disputed area in the East China Sea.

China says it is seeking to peacefully resolve its disputes in the region and has accused Japan of hyping regional threats to justify its military expansion.

Japan will be the first stop on President Obama's four-nation tour of the region, which includes visits to South Korea and two other Southeast Asian nations that have territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea - the Philippines and Malaysia.

Last year, a government shutdown in Washington forced President Obama to cancel his attendance at the APEC leaders summit. Cabestan said this year's trip is part of an effort to pick up from where he left off.

"Obama wants to repair his non-visit, his non-participation to the APEC summit in Indonesia in the fall last year… That created some frustration and some I think unease in Asia particularly among U.S. allies, because it gave the occasion for China to sort of run the show in place of Obama," said Cabestan.

Political scientist Xie Tao said Beijing will be watching closely to see what Obama does to reassure his allies in the region, whether he plays the role of peacemaker by promoting regional stability or plays up negative perceptions about China.

"I would hope that he would do something to assuage China's suspicions that he is not really here to contain China,” said Xie.

One key test of that, Xie added, will be Obama's stop in Malaysia. The stop in Malaysia will be the first for a U.S. president in nearly five decades and comes at a time when relations between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing are under tremendous strain following the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370.
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