11/08/2013 02:30 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Troubled Waters: The Rising Risk of Crisis in the Western Pacific

While the exact details of the confrontation remain unclear, the alleged interruption of a major Chinese naval exercise (including live-fire drills) in the Western Pacific in late October by a Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) vessel and aircraft is only the latest in a growing number of risky actions that could inadvertently precipitate a crisis and escalate into a conflict between East Asia's two major powers. The same week, Chinese aircraft approached Japanese airspace on three separate occasions, causing Japan to scramble fighter jets. The Chinese planes turned back before entering Japan's airspace but the incidents further underscore the dangerous game both states seem to be playing. At a time when the United States is preoccupied by dysfunctional domestic politics, tensions are rising and hopes of "cooler heads prevailing" seem less and less likely in East Asia, a region that President Obama prioritized as vital to U.S. national interests.

Relations between Beijing and Tokyo have steadily eroded since September 2010 when the captain of a Chinese fishing trawler was arrested for colliding with a Japanese coast guard vessel in waters off the disputed Senkaku (in Japan) or Diaoyu (in China) Islands in the East China Sea. Last summer, when Japan took the controversial step to officially purchase three of the small islands from private interests in an attempt to avert extreme Japanese nationalist demonstrators from staging a symbolic "re-taking" of the islands, a crisis erupted. China's leadership strongly denounced the move and anti-Japanese demonstrations took place in Beijing and other large cities in China. While no violent skirmishes have taken place to this point, the waters surrounding the islands have become the scene of repeated dangerous provocations as Chinese and Japanese vessels venture into disputed areas the face of opposition, at points engaging in water cannon exchanges.

Both countries have undergone recent leadership transitions, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe taking office on a platform of economic reforms and a more active Japanese foreign policy (including increased defense spending). However, persistent structural obstacles to sustainable economic growth have proven difficult to overcome. The ongoing recovery from the Fukushima disaster also presents a massive policy challenge, and funding for new defense projects may be difficult to come by.

At the same time, President Xi Jinping has sought to consolidate power at home, through a combination of leadership changes and crackdowns on popular opposition, while projecting an image of growing Chinese influence abroad. But China has its own problems to deal with, including slower economic growth and the implementation of political reforms deemed necessary to rationalize the economy and root out corruption for long-term prosperity. It would seem that neither leader needs a foreign policy crisis while attempting to manage formidable political and economic issues at home, but in reality, each may view the other as a convenient public distraction from those difficult ongoing domestic problems.

In a speech to Self-Defense Forces, Prime Minister Abe warned, "The security environment surrounding Japan is getting tougher." He further seemed to hint at the rationale for the intrusion on China's naval exercises by stating, "In order to show our firm national intention that changing the status quo by force will not be tolerated, we need to carry out various activities such as surveillance and information gathering." Abe has reportedly instructed Japanese forces to shoot down Chinese drones that pass through Japanese air space, which China has called an act of war. In short, the rhetoric has gotten heated and the persistence of dueling patrols around the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and reciprocal naval and military exercises sets the stage for a potential incident that could spark a crisis between the two regional powers.

This past Tuesday, in a speech largely focused on the damaging impact of sequestration and untargeted, across-the-board budget cuts to both short- and longer-term Pentagon objectives, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel reinforced the critical importance of the United States presence in East Asia:

"An example of the balance we are seeking to achieve is in America's renewed engagement in the Asia-Pacific region. America's military power plays a stabilizing role in the region, helping advance security, stability, and prosperity through our commitments to our allies and our partnerships with them as they build their own new capabilities."

Its seems, perhaps now more than ever, that the United States presence in East Asia is required -- not just to deter a rising China -- but also to reassure a fearful Japan, and to work with those nations to avoid provocation, build confidence, and enhance stability in the region. The perception of a preoccupied United States, distracted and divided by internal political battles that undermine its ability to address critical problems only exacerbates concerns and fears in allied capitals, and may mistakenly embolden potential adversaries. Without a clear U.S. commitment, states like Japan may see themselves forced to rely on their own capabilities and actions, and potentially dangerous outcomes may follow.