For the last few years, a big theme has dominated talk of the future of Asia: As China rises, its neighbours are being inevitably drawn into its orbit, currying favour with the region’s new hegemonic power.
The presumed loser, of course, is US, whose wealth and influence are being spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But frictions between China and its neighbours have handed the US an opportunity to reassert itself. Washington is leaping into heated disputes between China and Southeast Asian nations despite stern Chinese warnings to mind its own business. It is conducting naval exercises with South Korea though China is denouncing these exercises, saying they intrude on Chinese military areas.
China’s tense standoff with Japan over a Chinese fishing trawler captured by Japanese ships in disputed waters is pushing Japan back under the American security umbrella.
The arena for these struggles is shifting this week to a meeting of world leaders at the UN. Chinese PM Wen Jiabao has refused to meet with his Japanese counterpart, Naoto Kan, and threatened Japan with “further action” if it did not release the fishing captain.
“The US has been smart,” said Carlyle A. Thayer, a professor at the Australian Defense Force Academy. “It has done well by coming to the assistance of countries in the region.”
Asian nations suspicious of Chinese intentions see US as an ally. “Insecurity about China’s presence has served as a wake-up call on the importance of the alliance,” said Fumiaki Kubo, a professor of public policy.