NEWS AND ANALYSIS:
The federal government shutdown is encroaching on the Obama administration’s policy of shifting attention and resources toward Asia, also called “the pivot.”
The policy’s latest casualty: President Obama‘s visit to Asia, beginning Saturday. He is skipping visits to the Philippines and Malaysia, two Southeast Asian countries that face growing threats from China’s naval and maritime encroachment upon disputed islands. Instead, Mr. Obama will visit Brunei, Bali and Indonesia for regional summits.
“Malaysia and Philippines are the countries most threatened by China in that region,” said one U.S. official critical of the snub. “Instead, the president is going to the playground of the rich and famous in Bali and Brunei.”
The Philippine government’s dispute with China is centered on the Scarborough Shoal, which Beijing claims as its territory.
A new regional challenge, according to U.S. intelligence reports, involves threats from China against Malaysia’s South Luconia Shoals, underwater reefs said to contain vast resources of oil and gas that Beijing is eyeing for its energy-hungry economy.
Chinese government maritime surveillance ships recently were observed cruising near the shoals, and the activities set off alarms among senior Malaysian officials concerned about losing energy resources to China.
In March, China’s navy conducted a major patrol and training mission on James Shoal, a reef 50 miles from the Malaysian coast. The naval task force included a large amphibious landing ship.
Mr. Obama had been scheduled to meet in Kuala Lumpur with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak. The summit was to have bolstered ties between the two countries.
Now, U.S. officials fear a key Southeast Asian friend will be intimidated by Beijing and drift into the Chinese orbit of influence.
“They are very concerned about China and rightly so,” the U.S. official said of the Malaysians.
China has claimed 90 percent of the South China Sea, bringing Beijing into disputes with most of the nations in the region that look to the United States to be a counterbalancing force. Those nations are growing more concerned as they see steep cuts in U.S. defense spending.
China recently expanded a major naval base with new attack submarines on Hainan island at the north end of the South China Sea. Defense analysts say the base is a power-projection tool for China’s territorial claims.
Officials said they hope the president’s speech in Bali on Monday will include tough words for China and its maritime claims, and offer reassurances to American friends that the U.S. Navy will continue to maintain freedom of navigation in Asia as a counterweight to China’s growing naval power.
The White House announced Wednesday that the president canceled the planned stops after discussions with officials from the Southeast Asian states.
Asked about criticism from officials opposed to the president’s cancellations of visits to Malaysia and the Philippines, White House National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden declined to comment.
She said the visits were “logistically not possible” because of the shutdown and were postponed. Instead, Secretary of State John F. Kerry will lead the delegations to both countries, she said.
“The cancellation of this trip is another consequence of the House Republicans forcing a shutdown of the government,” Ms. Hayden said, adding that the shutdown is “setting back our ability to promote U.S. exports and advance U.S. leadership in the largest emerging region in the world.”
LOOKING FOR TROUBLE
U.S. and allied intelligence agencies are on alert for another round of threats and provocations from North Korea’s communist government.
The Pyongyang regime for years has engaged in a back-and-forth policy that intelligence and military officials say includes periods of threats and provocations followed by months of relative calm, lowered tensions and charm offensives.
The regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un appears to be in non-provocation mode. U.S. officials said they were surprised by North Korea’s mild criticism of recent U.S. military exercises in the region, compared with past rhetoric that included threats to turn rival South Korea into a sea of fire.
Intelligence agencies that monitor North Korea say the trend may be changing. The reason: President Obama made no mention of the reclusive communist state in his Sept. 24 address to the U.N. General Assembly.
As a result, there are concerns that the mercurial Mr. Kim may conduct some type of military provocation to draw attention once again to his nuclear-armed state, which is said to be working on developing small warheads for its long-range missiles.
A conventional military attack on South Korea, like the 2010 sinking of a warship and artillery shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, is not expected in the next round of provocations, officials said.
Intelligence agencies think the next incitement could be another long-range missile launch, like the test-firing of a Taepodong-2 in December that violated U.N. sanctions against missile tests.
The outgoing commander of U.S. military forces in Korea, Army Gen. James D. Thurman, voiced concerns about North Korean provocations during a meeting Wednesday with reporters in Seoul.
Gen. Thurman said he is optimistic that “we would see a change of behavior” in Pyongyang after Mr. Kim assumed power in December 2011.
However, a February 2012 agreement by North Korea to halt uranium enrichment collapsed and a long-range missile was tested in April, events the general said “caused me a great deal of worry.”
Next came stepped-up North Korean rhetoric that continued through May. The threats raised the prospect that a “miscalculation” by North Korea could trigger a renewed conflict.
“I’ve seen that now toned down, and I agree, I think the biggest concerns I see out of [Mr. Kim] is a continued desire to have nuclear weapons, nuclear materials, development of long-range ballistic missiles and improvement in long-range artillery,” Gen. Thurman said.
“We’ve got to keep a close watch on them every day,” he said. “It’s clear to me, he’s in charge up there.”
Gen. Thurman said U.S. forces work closely with South Korea’s military, adding that the two armies developed a “counterprovocation plan” after the attacks in 2010.
South Korea’s government has said it would not stand by idly if struck again, as it did after the warship sinking and island shelling that killed 48 sailors and marines and two civilians.
The joint military plan “allows us to control a rapid escalation of a provocation,” he said.
Army Gen. James D. Thurman, commander of U.S. military forces in Korea, outlined what he said is a continuing threat to Northeast Asia and the world from North Korea’s military, missiles and weapons of mass destruction.
“I think what you see with the North Korean threat today, what causes me the biggest concern, are the development of asymmetric threats,” he said.
Those threats include missiles, long-range artillery, special operations forces, chemical and biological weapons, cyberwarfare capabilities and 1.1 million troops — 73 percent of whom are deployed near the border with South Korea.
The four-star general, who is retiring after nearly 40 years in the military, also was asked about North Korea’s new road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile, dubbed the KN-08. He said it poses a serious threat because of the difficulty of tracking and targeting the hard-to-find systems.
“That is a system that’s in their portfolio that we remain concerned about,” Gen. Thurman said.
“We’ve observed it during two military parades in Pyongyang. It’s difficult to assess the full operational capability of that system. Of concern to us, obviously, is the rogue mobile capability and our ability to detect that.”
The new missile, deployed on a Chinese-made transporter-erector launcher, shows North Korea’s drive to build long-range missiles.
“They’ve openly stated that they’re developing the capability to strike the continental United States, and we take that very serious,” Gen. Thurman said.