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.
The Japan-South Korea relationship also has been roiled by the issue of Korean “comfort women” who were sexually exploited by the Japanese in World War II. Mr. Abe late last month backed off a pledge to review a 1993 Japanese apology to South Korea over the sexual abuse.
The Japan-South Korea relationship holds the most promise for improvement, analysts said.
“From the U.S. perspective, having a strong U.S.-Japan-South Korea trilateral [relationship] is a necessity, and that has been heavily strained because of the territorial disputes and lingering mistrust over history,” said Randall Schriver, who served as deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs in the George W. Bush administration.
“The Abe administration and Miss Park have a chance to reset that relationship in a way that would be very beneficial to us.”
Ms. Park’s father, former dictator Park Chung-hee, normalized South Korea’s relationship with Japan and secured a Japanese loan that allowed South Korea to enter the steel industry and put it on the path to prosperity. Her father also shared a close relationship with Mr. Abe’s late grandfather, Kan Abe, who was a Japanese politician.
Mr. Abe has made an effort to send positive diplomatic signals to Seoul and Beijing. He sent envoys to China and has reached out to Ms. Park’s transition team.
Ms. Lee is not convinced the honeymoon will last.
“In Japan-South Korea relations, we have seen this cycle that when there is a new administration in place it starts off promising better relations, but after a while slides into diplomatic disputes over history,” she said. “I don’t think the Abe and Park administrations are particularly immune to this trend.”
South Korea’s ties with China deteriorated under Ms. Park’s predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, and Chinese President Hu Jintao.
Ms. Park, who wants strong ties with the United States, also has reached out to China. She is expected to strengthen the relationship with Beijing as a means to put pressure on China’s ally, North Korea.
While geography and history have driven a wedge between South Korea and Japan, the security threat posed by North Korea has brought them closer.
“The question is whether the circle can be expanded to include China,” said Mr. Bush of the Brookings Institution. “Does China conclude from the [North Korean] missile test and the nuclear test that its fairly indulgent strategy toward North Korea is a failure and it needs to tighten the screws a little bit?”
The U.N. Security Council is considering additional sanctions to punish North Korea for carrying out its third nuclear test Feb. 9. It slapped sanctions on Pyongyang in January for launching a long-range rocket in December.
During her election campaign, Miss Park said she would consider economic aid to North Korea on the condition that Pyongyang makes a commitment to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.
Pyongyang’s nuclear test has dashed hopes of any near-term improvement of ties.
Meanwhile, Mr. Xi’s ascent in China has raised expectations of a warmer chapter in the U.S.-China relationship.
Mr. Xi formed an emotional bond with the United States when first visited in 1985 as part of an agricultural delegation and stayed with a family in Muscatine, Iowa. He has visited the United States many times since and has a daughter who studies at Harvard University.
“There is a lot of hope in both capitals that this [warming of ties] is possible,” Mr. Bush said.
Mr. Schriver, however, said it almost doesn’t matter who is in the leadership in the United States or in China.
“We are going to have a prolonged period of competition,” he said. “The job of our leaders will be to manage that competition to ensure that it is benign and doesn’t turn into a crisis or even conflict.”