NEW DELHI – The year 2012 began with festering Chinese sovereignty claims in the South and East China Seas, but also with hope that a code of conduct brokered by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations would enable them to be resolved peacefully. The year is ending, however, with those hopes dashed and ASEAN more divided than it has ever been. Indeed, a handful of its members now seem eager to subordinate their national interests – and the interests of ASEAN – to those of China.
China’s increasing assertiveness in staking its claims contributed to the landslide victory of the defense-minded Liberal Democrats in Japan, and to the conservative Park Geun-hye’s election as South Korea’s first-ever female president. Rising regional tensions also provided the backdrop to US President Barack Obama’s trip to Southeast Asia shortly after his re-election.
Obama announced the United States’ strategic “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region in January 2012, and a whirlwind of activity there – from Australia to Indonesia to India – marked America’s security diplomacy throughout the year. In Japan, too, worries about Chinese assertiveness have become so powerful that a government that showed considerable hostility to the US-Japan alliance when it came to power three years ago had, by November, begun to trumpet the alliance’s mutual-defense commitments as it confronted China’s claim to the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands.
The security concerns that have animated this diplomacy are forging a broad coalition, bringing in not only the region’s democracies, but also countries like Vietnam, which is embroiled in its own territorial dispute with China that centers on maritime oil exploration. Even India, which has been cautious about deepening its security ties with the US, has now embraced the idea of regional mutual defense – not only with America, but also with Japan and other East Asian countries.