- The Washington Times - Monday, February 25, 2013

Japan’s territorial disputes with South Korea and China, a belligerent North Korea, and an increasingly assertive China are posing challenges to the Obama administration as it seeks to deepen its engagement with Asia, analysts say.

But a new crop of leaders in Japan and South Korea, and in China next month, presents an opportunity for the Asian neighbors to dial down the rhetoric, they add.

Park Geun-hye was inaugurated as South Korea’s first female president Monday. In Japan, Shinzo Abe was elected prime minister in December. In China, Xi Jinping, the secretary general of the Communist Party of China, is expected to assume the presidency in March.

In his first term, President Obama adopted what the administration called a “pivot” toward the Asia-Pacific region that entails military, human rights, diplomatic, economic and trade initiatives.

The Obama administration faces twin challenges as it seeks to balance its relationships with Japan and South Korea without upsetting China, said Ji-Young Lee, an assistant professor at American University.

“The first challenge is the perception in Beijing that Obama’s pivot to Asia is directed against them, that the U.S. is trying to contain China,” Ms. Lee said. “The second is the intensified island disputes that will put the U.S. in a difficult position.”

Beijing and Tokyo claim sovereignty over a group of five East China Sea islands, known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan.

On a visit to Washington last week, Mr. Abe complained about Chinese aggression and described the security environment in the Asia Pacific as “becoming more and more difficult.”

Richard C. Bush III, director of the Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution, noted, “China is promoting its claim [over the islands] in a fairly aggressive way, and that runs the risk of some kind of clash that escalates out of control. That is not a good situation at all.”

The Obama administration is worried that a confrontation between Japan and China could embroil the United States, which has not taken a position on the territorial dispute but has said the islands are covered under a U.S.-Japan security treaty. In the event of a military confrontation with China, the United States would be obliged to side with Japan.

“Sino-Japanese relations have significant impact on all of us and on all the countries in the region, so it’s something that we all pay close attention to,” Daniel Russel, senior director for Asia at the National Security Council, told reporters on a conference call last week.

In his Washington visit, Mr. Abe sought to allay U.S. concerns.

Japan “cannot tolerate” any challenge to its claim on the islands, the Japanese prime minister said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Friday, but he added that he had “absolutely no intention to climb up the escalation ladder.”

Japan also is embroiled in territorial dispute with South Korea over two main islets and three dozen smaller rocks in the East Sea/Sea of Japan. Tokyo and Seoul cite long-standing historical ties to the rocky outcrops, which are controlled by South Korea but claimed by Japan.

The islands, which are known as Dokdo in South Korea and Takeshima in Japan, are located in rich fishing waters that also have natural gas reserves.

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