As President Barack Obama makes his final tour of Asia, much of the focus has been on the United States’ pivot or re-balance of its economic, diplomatic and military interests to the region.
The United States, however, is not the only country that is pivoting to Southeast Asia and trying to build influence. Japan and Russia are taking big steps to up their presence in the region.
Over the past three years, Japan has put more investment into countries who are part of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations than it has put into China and Hong Kong. And steadily it is looking for ways to move beyond developmental assistance to massive infrastructure projects much like Beijing is already doing in the region.
The U.S. pivot and China’s rise are drivers of that shift, said Titli Basu, a researcher with the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi.
"Japan has been orienting its policy toward the region more so since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe came to power in 2012," Basu said. "The arrival of China as a major power has made Japan really impatient to redefine its role in the Asia Pacific security order."
Asia’s big game
Japan’s focus is not only on building business, but security and diplomatic ties as well. One focus of that effort recently has seen Tokyo providing Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia with coast guard ships and training.
Communist ruled Vietnam has long had close party-to-party relations with China, but it is also seeing its ties with the United States and Russia blossom. Earlier this year, the United States announced the lifting of a decades-old arms ban to Vietnam.
In addition to working on a nuclear power plant for Vietnam, Russsia is also providing Hanoi with submarines and building a submarine base. That would help Vietnam protect its maritime interests in the South China Sea and the support comes even as Moscow has backed Beijing’s position regarding territorial disputes.
Everyone is a 'frenemy'
As more nations compete for influence, that inevitably is creating tensions.
Conflicting and cross-cutting purposes is really what defines Asia these days, said Richard Bitzinger, a senior fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
“Everybody is a 'frenemy' so to speak,” Bitzinger said.
“There are a lot of places where two countries: Russia, China; China, the United States; find lots of opportunities and common interests that make them want to cooperate… At the same time there are a lot of places where they collide and compete,” he said.
North Korea is an area where Russia, Japan, China and the United States can find room to work together, but when it comes to the East or South China Sea, interests are more divided, Bitzinger said.
Russia an Asian power too
More of a latecomer to the big game in Asia, Russia too is stepping up efforts with arms sales to Vietnam and energy deals. Russia has long been a key supplier of weapons to countries across Asia.
At the peak of its power in the 1980s, the former Soviet Union’s largest overseas military base was in Vietnam.
“For the past few years, Russia has been pre-occupied with events in Europe,” said Lo Chih-cheng, a political scientist at Taiwan’s Soochow University. And now, “Putin’s trying to move the strategic direction from Europe to Asia, (which is) Russia’s version of a pivot to Asia as a balancer (equalizer) to rising U.S. influence in the region.”
But while it appears to be determined to slowly return to the region, it’s trade pales in comparison to most other countries, and as Bitzinger puts it, Moscow is more of “Johnny come Late-ly” in the region who is situated more at the back of the pack.
“The problem with the Russians is that they don’t really have a good toe-hold in the region,” he said.
However, to boost its position in the region, Russia has been working together with China (even as its arms sales in Vietnam undermine Beijing). Russian President Vladimir Putin has voiced his country's support of Beijing's stance that countries outside the region should not get involved in the South China Sea dispute.
At the East Asia Summit, leaders tip-toed around the issue and failed to articulate a forceful position on issues such as freedom of navigation and overflight, said Basu.
“There was no reference to the arbitration. There was no reference to the land reclamation that China is undertaking in the region,” she said. “And that tells you a lot about the deep roots that China has in terms of diplomacy, economics and defense.”
And while most countries don’t want to see things get worse and pretty committed to keep the tensions or keep the differences that they have from exploding, the potential for inadvertent conflict is a growing, Bitzinger said.
“A lot of the actions that are being taken by countries particularly when it comes to the regional arming that is going on, a lot more types of very sophisticated weapons are flowing into the region,” he said. “Coupled with that you are seeing an increasingly kind of intransigent amount of brinkmanship that is going in the South China Sea in particular.”
And with that brinkmanship and increasing complexity of ties, he adds, small and minor incidents have a bigger chance of spinning out of control.