The president of the Philippines, Benigno Aquino, became the second of two close American allies (after Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe) to shake hands with President Xi Jinping of China this week. Xi and Aquino shared promises to constructively manage tensions in the South China Sea, a promising step forward after several years of maritime incursions into territory both countries claim as their own.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is determined to build close strategic ties with Japan in order to put discreet checks on China's exercise of its rapidly accumulating power. China's strategy of constant outward pressure on its borders not only threatens to destabilize Asia's status quo but is also pushing countries like India, Japan, and Vietnam to strategically collaborate. Modi's priority is to ensure stable power equilibrium in Asia.
Beijing's sparring with Abe has produced underwhelming results. An international public relations blitz following Abe's Yasukuni trip -- to remind the world of Japan's past aggression and warn of resurgent militarism -- resulted not in a chorus of condemnation of Tokyo but in wariness of excessive Chinese rhetoric. Nor did harsh criticism of Abe undermine his standing at home.
Over the centuries, a rich China invariably brought prosperity to all of East and Southeast Asia. Therefore, while Asian countries might value the U.S. as a friend, no one wants China as an enemy. There is a spot that is sweet for everyone. If the U.S. moves closer to China and to other countries of Asia, all will benefit. If the U.S., in response to China's rise, moves too close to some as a move against others, everyone is caught in a lose-lose situation.
If the next world war is to happen, it will most likely be in Asia and feature a clash between the incumbent hegemon, the United States, and the principal challenger, China. The good news is China does not want war now and in the foreseeable future, primarily because Beijing knows too well that the odds are not on its side. But if we look ahead 20 years from now, in 2034, the odds will have shifted significantly.
The Ukraine crisis may well become a tipping point, sealing the fate of Eurasian alignments. The Western push to punish and isolate Russia is drawing Moscow closer to Beijing, which, tellingly, has taken a stance of benevolent neutrality towards the Kremlin's actions in Ukraine and its takeover of Crimea. One may suspect that, in exchange, Beijing would expect from Moscow the same kind of "benevolent neutrality" regarding its assertions in East Asia and the Western Pacific.
Those who are wary of the honeymoon between Korea and China say that the current bilateral relationship is like a big snake wrapped around a rabbit. It is an awful comparison. But if we are overly carried away by the closest relationship with China since Korea tied a diplomatic knot with the superpower in 1992 and fall into Xi's dream of regaining the glory of the Qianlong Emperor of the Qing Dynasty -- who controlled Hong Kong, Taiwan, Mongolia and other islands of the East and South China Seas -- then inter-Korean relations, Korea-U.S. ties and Korea-Japan relations will cross a bridge of no return.
China's leaders seem to believe that the 2008 economic crisis and the high costs of two foreign wars have left the U.S. in no position to exercise international leadership. That may explain China's recent foreign policy assertiveness, particularly in its dispute with Japan over control of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, which could be intended to probe the strength of the US-Japan alliance. Testing U.S. power in this way could prove to be a dangerous miscalculation.
If Asia is to build trust and avoid a regional arms race, a framework under which the region's governments publicly disclose their military budgets needs to be established. More broadly, keeping military expansion in check and improving mutual understanding among national defense authorities are the paramount issues now facing Asia.
Many worry that a self-reflective and retrenching America is leaving a void in the world's balance of power. But hold your breath, here is Shinzo Abe coming to the rescue. Before the Americans sign their outsourcing contract with Tokyo, they would be well advised to listen carefully to Mr. Abe's Shangri-La speech. In his concluding remarks, he said that the New Japanese are really no different from their parents and grandparents in seeking to contribute to the world. For every Chinese and every Korean, it begs the question: Just who were those grandfathers Mr. Abe was so proudly referring to?
The Asia-Pacific region has achieved tremendous growth in the span of a single generation. Regrettably, a large and relatively disproportionate share of the fruits of that growth is going toward military expansion. The sources of instability include not only the threat of weapons of mass destruction, but also -- and more immediately -- efforts to alter the territorial status quo through force or coercion. And those efforts are taking place largely at sea. We do not welcome dangerous encounters by fighter aircraft and vessels at sea. What Japan and China must exchange are words. Should we not meet at the negotiating table, exchange smiles and handshakes, and get down to talking?
Today, Asia once again faces a historical challenge. It is standing at the crossroads between progress and retrogression. Why and how have we come this far? Partly, this is accounted for by the new and divergent outlook for the regional order -- a rising China, a resurgent Japan, strong Russia, anachronistic North Korea obsessed with the pursuit of nuclear weapons, and the United States who is rebalancing to Asia. It looks like the "Pandora's Box" is being opened, with all sorts of problems -- both old and new -- popping up, complicating the already very complex situation. Any of these developments, if mishandled or left unchecked, could escalate into a much more serious situation with far reaching consequences for the region.
Misguided nationalism is rearing its ugly head in some instances. The political dynamics of the region is shaking the geopolitical plate from under the surface. Dr. Kissinger once said, "history knows no resting places and plateaus." To me, history knows no end. Here in Northeast Asia, it is returning with a vengeance.
This week, U.S. President Barack Obama is visiting Asia to meet U.S. allies and assure them of America's backing as China rises to become the dominant power in the region. In light of the West's weak response to Putin's takeover of the Crimea, some Asian allies are concerned about whether the U.S. will stand steady in the event a conflict breaks out between one of its allies and China.