From the Wall Street Journal, Asia News; MAY 25, 2010; By Jay Solomon, Yuka Hayashi and Jason Dean
Japan Base Deal, Malaysia About-Face Show How White House Could Benefit From Beijing's Military Assertiveness
Fears that China is siding with Pyongyang over North Korea's alleged sinking of a South Korean naval vessel has rattled South Korea's and Japan's governments and re-energized their commitments to military alliances with the U.S., officials from both countries said.|
Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama publicly cited the North Korean threat last week in recommitting Tokyo to stationing U.S. Marines on the island of Okinawa.
Further afield, countries such as Malaysia and Vietnam have also been seeking closer ties to the U.S. in recent months, according to U.S. and Asian diplomats. These countries are quietly voicing fears about China's expanding military and economic power. Analysts say that the more China has sought to assert its regional authority, the more many Asian leaders have pressed Washington to maintain, if not increase, its military and diplomatic presence.
The U.S. "should be sending China thank you notes" for its handling of the North Korea issue, said Ralph Cossa, a former U.S. Air Force colonel who heads the Pacific Forum CSIS, a Hawaii-based think tank. China, he said, "very much played into the hands of both the U.S. and Hatoyama's interests."
South Korea's strong ties with Beijing have been tested by China's reaction to Pyongyang's alleged torpedoing of the South Korean vessel, the Cheonan. China waited nearly a month to send condolences to South Korea for the loss of 46 of its servicemen. Chinese President Hu Jintao rankled Seoul by hosting North Korean leader Kim Jong Il this month in a string of meetings in Beijing. South Korea President Lee Myung-bak had visited China just days earlier and hadn't been told of Mr. Kim's visit, South Korean officials say.
China's government has continued to indicate skepticism toward South Korea's formal accusation last week, backed by an international probe of the Cheonan's wreckage, that North Korea attacked the ship. North Korea has denied any involvement in the attack.
China has "taken note of the result of the South Korean investigation," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said Tuesday. "We have also taken note of the [North Koreans'] response." Chinese scholars say Beijing's caution is warranted, in part to avoid the possibility that the North could be wrongly accused.
China's growing assertiveness has rattled the region, as recent tensions between Beijing and Tokyo illustrate.
Mr. Hatoyama entered office last year pursing a policy line very much in China's interest—a more "equal" relationship between Tokyo and Washington, and the reduction of U.S. troops on Okinawa. Japan's leader has also repeatedly discussed the idea of creating an "East Asia" community modeled after the European Community.
Still, China-Japan relations have soured significantly in recent months. In early May, Japan filed a formal protest to Beijing after a Chinese ship chased a Japanese coast guard vessel that Tokyo says was conducting marine surveys within a Japanese zone. Japan filed another protest a month earlier after a Chinese helicopter buzzed a Japanese ship sailing near the location of Chinese military exercises.
On May 15, Japanese and Chinese diplomats publicly sparred at a meeting in South Korea, after Tokyo's Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada pressed Beijing to shrink, or at least not increase, its nuclear-weapons arsenal. Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi countered that Beijing's nuclear strategy was clear and its position on disarmament widely recognized.
But Mr. Okada repeated his remarks at a trilateral meeting with South Korea's chief diplomat. According to people familiar with the exchange, Mr. Yang became so upset that he started yelling at Mr. Okada. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman later called Mr. Okada's remarks "irresponsible."
Mr. Okada said such accusations were groundless. "The Chinese side stated various things during our exchange," he said. "But I didn't hear them say once they weren't building up" their nuclear arsenal.
U.S. officials acknowledged this week that while China's actions have likely played a role in Japan deciding to extend the U.S. military presence on Okinawa, they added that Washington remains worried that rising China-Japan tensions pose a longer-term security threat to U.S. interests. "No one benefits if things deteriorate further," said a senior U.S. official.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao could try to smooth regional relations during a trip later this week to South Korea for a three-nation meeting with Mr. Lee and Mr. Hatoyama, and then to Japan.
China's growing confidence is also raising fears in Southeast Asia, and stimulating a new courtship of the U.S.
Muslim-majority Malaysia has often had rocky relations with Washington in recent decades. Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad openly sought to challenge U.S. economic policies during the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Kuala Lumpur has regularly attacked U.S. foreign policy in the Islamic world.
Under new Prime Minister Najib Razak, however, Malaysia has increasingly sought to reorient itself toward the U.S., Malaysian and U.S. officials say.
The two sides have been discussing the possibility of Kuala Lumpur's sending a reconstruction team to Afghanistan, which would make Malaysia one of the few Muslim countries to deploy troops. And Mr. Razak's government just passed a draconian law regulating the export of dual-use technologies to countries such as Iran. U.S. officials have regularly complained that Malaysia has served as one of the primary conduits for military equipment entering Iran.
Malaysian officials have said in interviews that its foreign policy shift has been driven, in part, by its desire to offset China's growing power. "We can't afford right now not to be on good terms with the U.S.," said a senior Malaysian official.
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