SEOUL — The United States moved to pivot military, diplomatic and economic resources toward Asia in 2013, but the policy was sidetracked by bickering among allies and an increasingly assertive China.
Vice President Joe Biden's December trip to Northeast Asia was meant to focus on reassuring U.S. allies Japan and South Korea of its plans to vastly increase resources to the region.
But China's sudden expansion of its Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) to overlap disputed areas with Japan and South Korea in the East China Sea dominated discussions.
Biden said he spoke candidly on the issue in meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
"But I was absolutely clear on behalf of my president, we do not recognize the zone,” said Biden in a speech at South Korea's Yonsei University. “It will have no affect on American operations. Just ask my general. None. Zero. I've also made it clear that we expect China not to take action that increases tensions and the risk of escalation.”
Japan, South Korea and the United States defiantly flew military aircraft through the area without informing Beijing, while South Korea expanded its defense ID zone to overlap parts of China's.
For safety reasons, the United States said its commercial aircraft would follow the new guidelines of first submitting flight plans through the expanded area to Beijing and staying in radio contact with Chinese authorities.
South Korea at first refused to comply, but later said its commercial flights would follow the U.S.' example, while Japan has flatly refused. The airspace above the Japan-administered Senkaku islands, which China disputes ownership of and calls the Diaoyu, is included in Beijing's expanded zone.
Despite concerns about miscalculation or mistakes, the International Crisis Group's Dan Pinkston argued the risk to aircraft from the expanded ADIZs is exaggerated.
“In no way is it in China's interest to interfere with any of that,” said Pinkston. “Of course, the question is with state aircraft, with military aircraft. Now I think China would claim to have some legal authority to intercept or take hostile acts against foreign aircraft around the disputed islands in the East China Sea. But, again, do they want to escalate and become involved in that type of hostile action. I don't think so at this time. But, if they want to do that they can do it anyway.”
As part of its military expansion and assertion, China's recently launched aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, has undergone training exercises in the South China Sea, where it disputes territory with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam.
During Biden's trip, a Chinese warship escorting the carrier got in the path of a U.S. missile cruiser forcing it to change course to avoid collision.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called China's behavior in the encounter “irresponsible.”
China's aggressive moves on disputed territory has, in part, driven calls for the U.S. to rebalance toward Asia, as well as boost relations with key East Asia allies Japan and South Korea.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has sought a summit meeting with South Korean President Park Geun-hye but has so far been shunned by Seoul, and Beijing, for efforts to white wash Japan's colonial and World War II aggression.
Meeting China's rise calls for repairing damage to Seoul-Tokyo relations, said Professor Park Hwee Rhak at Kookmin University.
"Under the current situation, it is difficult to relieve the threat with a separate South Korea-U.S. alliance and U.S.-Japan alliance”, said Park. “So it is necessary to strengthen South Korea-Japan relations and the U.S. must put forward effort more actively. So I think it will be great for President Obama at the next visit to focus on the U.S. contribution to negotiating closer relations between South Korea and Japan.”
Abe in December hosted leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations with an eye towards investment but also part of what he has called forming an “arc of freedom” from Japan around China's south.
The Japan-ASEAN summit statement underscored the need for freedom of navigation in the sea and air, a veiled reference to concerns about China.
China has close economic ties with ASEAN but has also irritated members with territorial disputes for dragging its feet on negotiating a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.
ICG's Pinkston notes that although China claims to want a multi-polar world, it prefers to negotiate bilaterally so it can more effectively throw around its political and economic weight.
“My hope is that at some point in the future we can get on a path of developing better, multilateral institutions for the region that will take everyone's security concerns into account. And, that we can find a better way than forming trilateral alliances to balance against China or encircle China and so forth,” Pinkston said. “Hopefully, we can find a better mechanism rather than just slipping into a new Cold War in East Asia.”