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China Confrontation: Vietnam Vet Kerry Makes Hay With Our Old Foe, Japan Woos Southeast Asia

High-profile diplomacy by American and Japanese leaders is bearing fruit in the wake of China following up its claim of sovereignty over virtually the entire South China Sea with its declaration of an air defense identification zone over much of the East China Sea.

Secretary of State John Kerry journeyed first to his old stomping grounds of Vietnam, where the Vietnam War hero-turned-protester presented our one-time fiercest foe with a naval aid package and toured the Mekong River Delta he once patrolled to discuss the challenge of climate change. Then he went on to the Philippines, where he has just wrapped up, and presented our old ally -- like Vietnam, locked in confrontation with China over Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea -- with a new naval assistance package.

For his part, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who met at length earlier this month in Tokyo with Vice President Joe Biden and later consulted with Biden by phone, hosted a summit of the 10 ASEAN nations (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) over the weekend in the Japanese capital. Noting that he looks forward to hosting them at the Tokyo Olympic of 2020, won by Abe's government during the fall, the former USC grad student found common cause with regard to China's aggressive behavior and, perhaps not coincidentally, laid out a $20 billion aid package for the region.


John Kerry in Vietnam for the first time as U.S. secretary of state.

While all this was going on, China's state media tried to blame the U.S. for the Cowpens incident, in which a U.S. guided missile cruiser observing China's first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, engaging in rudimentary air operations in the South China Sea, was nearly rammed by one of the carrier's support vessels despite being in what are long established international waters. And China has not rescinded its claim of an air defense zone over much of the East China Sea. But talk of declaring one over the South China Sea subsided somewhat. Which did not stop Kerry, speaking from the Philippine capital of Manila, from warning China not to even try to declare a South China Sea air defense zone. I lay out these controversies in the larger context of China's bid for superpower status and America's geopolitical pivot from the Middle East and Central Asia to the Asia-Pacific in this piece from December 14.

It was fitting that Kerry, the Vietnam War patrol boat commander and 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, came to Vietnam bearing a deal for American patrol boats, five of them, albeit larger than the boats he served in, part of a nearly $20 million package of mostly maritime military aid to Vietnam. Kerry then toured the huge Mekong River -- where he won a Silver Star as a patrol boat commander fighting against the forces of his hosts -- and talked up the threat of climate change on the vast delta region.

From Vietnam, it was on to the Philippines, where Kerry again brought a package of naval aid. The U.S. has already supplied the tiny Philippine Navy with ships and patrol boats; now they have an additional $40 million in aid to bolster their maritime forces which repeatedly face off against usually superior Chinese patrol vessels ranging far from home to waters off the Philippine coast.

Kerry denounced China's attempt to impose an air defense zone in the East China Sea and warned the PRC to forget about declaring one over the South China Sea.

"The U.S. does not recognize that zone and does not accept it. The zone should not be implemented, and China should refrain from taking similar unilateral actions elsewhere in the region and particularly over the South China Sea," he declared in a Manila press conference.

Kerry wrapped up his visit to the Philippines touring areas damaged by the recent super-typhoon and pledged more U.S. aid. The U.S. played the leading role in international assistance, with the commander of Marine forces in the Pacific coordinating disaster response efforts out of Camp Aguinaldo, the headquarters of the Philippine armed forces.

Kerry also worked on arrangements for U.S. forces to expand a rotational presence in the Philippines, a deal which might have been closed earlier this fall but for Obama being forced to skip his first ever visit to the island archipelago due to the federal government shutdown debacle.

In Tokyo over the weekend, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, hosting a summit between Japan and the 10-member ASEAN -- all of which was conquered by Japan during the Pacific War phase of what became World War II -- announced that Japan was joining the U.S. in supplying patrol boats to the Philippines and Vietnam.

He also won passage of a hoped-for resolution opposing China's approach of imposing air defense zones in Western Pacific waters distant from China's shores.

As it upgrades and expands its already substantial armed forces in ways not envisioned in its MacArthur-dictated pacifist-oriented constitution, Japan is off to a good start winning favor from most East Asian nations. If Abe can smooth things over more with South Korea and further allay concerns that he and his associates are dangerous nationalists, Japan can be a great ally for the US, the sort it has never had in the Middle East or Central Asia.