• Navigating relations with China and Japan
    December 09,2013

    For the sake of world peace, the United States needs positive relations with China and Japan, the two largest economic and military entities in Asia. But it is difficult to achieve smooth relations when they are showing increasing hostility to each other.

    This problem is not just for the present administration in Washington, already saddled with a variety of vexing issues. It’s a long-term issue for the United States and for all nations that hope to govern in a stable global atmosphere.

    Both China and Japan have relatively new political leaders (they’ve held office for less than a year), and so far they’ve spoken to each other for only a few minutes, even as tensions mount, mostly over disputed territorial claims.

    It may seem strange, to say the least, that these two countries (along with South Korea and Taiwan) are engaged in such a serious argument over the rights to two tiny, unpopulated islands in the East China Sea, yet it is a dispute that in some respects is reminiscent of the war between Argentina and the United Kingdom over the Falkland Islands in 1982.

    One prominent Argentinian author, Jorge Luis Borges, described that conflict as “two bald men fighting over a comb,” but nearly 1,000 lives were lost before the fighting ended.

    There are substantial differences, of course, between the fight over the Falklands and their nearly 3,000 permanent residents, almost all of them of British descent. It is little wonder they weren’t predisposed to welcome Argentinian insistence that the islands belonged to them, even if the claim had historic merit.

    But it is this very kind of issue that can lead to military as well as political conflict. In fact, although the British prevailed in the Falklands, to this day Argentina continues to lay claim to the islands, which are so far from London and so close to Buenos Aires.

    Back in Asia, the tensions are more immediate, and that’s why Vice President Joe Biden recently flew to the region to present Washington’s position over the budding crisis. The White House is mindful of the fact that nations are not supposed to laterally make such territorial claims, especially when other nations have their own apparently legitimate reasons for rejecting such claims.

    Keep this in mind, though: There is absolutely no international organization designed to solve such territorial disputes. Therefore, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea have nowhere to go with their objections to China’s somewhat surprising initiative.

    President Obama’s recently disclosed “pivot” toward Asia may be behind China’s behavior. He and China both understand the war in Afghanistan is drawing to a close, and there will be competition for economic and political influence in the region.

    Writing in Sunday’s Washington Post, Victor D. Cha, the senior adviser for Asia at The Center for Strategic and International Studies and a professor at Georgetown University, argued that the White House can “make lemonade out of this lemon” by augmenting its presence in the region.

    “Washington should encourage a coordinated message with key allies affected by the Chinese actions, in particular Japan and South Korea, whose relationship has deteriorated over the past year,” Cha wrote.

    He also called for the United States to step up its military exercises in the region “to convey a clear and consistent message that America still underwrites the region’s stability and security.”

    That all sounds fine, but it also reminds us that foreign affairs remain just as critical as those at home for any American president.

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