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Expedience, pragmatism shape new Asian alliances

Tuesday - 7/8/2014, 5:42pm  ET

FILE - In this Sunday, Aug. 18, 2013 file photo, Japanese Coast Guard boat and vessel sail alongside Japanese activists' fishing boat, not in photo, warning the activists away from a group of disputed islands called Diaoyu by China and Senkaku by Japan. Japan’s increasingly angry reaction to its territorial spat with Beijing, its fears of increased Chinese military might and its stalemate with Russia over a different set of disputed islands up north have opened some cracks that its hawkish Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been happy to create his own fixes for - and they aren’t always what his friends back in Washington might have preferred. (AP Photo/Emily Wang, File)

Associated Press

TOKYO (AP) -- Moscow is cozying up to its old rival China. China is holding hands with Seoul. Tokyo is striking deals with Pyongyang.

In the ever-shifting game of Asian alliances, where just about everybody has a dispute over something or can actually remember a shooting war with their neighbors, past grudges run deep. But expedience and pragmatism often run deeper.

While U.S. President Barack Obama tries to develop his pivot to Asia policy, the region is rapidly spinning ahead in its own direction, energized by dynamic economies, expanding trade relations and a plethora of longstanding disputes and rivalries.

For sure, the world's mightiest countries, themselves Pacific powers, still throw a lot of weight around. But as they jockey for advantage in the world's most populous region, relations across Asia are fluid. Many countries, both at the center of the power game and on the sidelines, have both a chance to capitalize and a risk of getting frozen out:



Washington was long able to capitalize on Cold War rifts between Russia and China, but Dmitry Trenin, the director of Carnegie Moscow Center, recently wrote that the two are rebuilding a relationship likely to grow significantly stronger. This trend has accelerated in part because of Moscow's frustration with the West over its Ukraine sanctions.

"They are not in a clear alliance, and have a number of diverging, even partially colliding, interests. But they both challenge the global order in which the United States is the norm-setter and the sole arbiter," he wrote. "The Chinese do this in a much subtler way than the Russians, but both appear to have come to the conclusion that working one's way into the U.S.-dominated system is not worth it."

Symbolic of Moscow's moves toward Beijing is a $400 billion deal they signed last month, after decades of negotiations that went nowhere, to supply China with natural gas through a new pipeline. President Vladimir Putin called the deal "epochal'" though he reportedly had to accept a lower-than-hoped-for price.

In Russia, the effort to improve relations with China is called Putin's Pivot.

"A strong Russian-Chinese connection has taken shape on the international arena. It is based on a coincidence of views on both global processes and key regional issues," Putin said earlier this month.

Trenin noted that U.S. relations with China and with Russia are substantially worse than bilateral relations between Beijing and Moscow. He said that is in part because Washington has failed to take Russia seriously as a strategic player in the region. Beijing, meanwhile, may come out with access to more resources and a more secure northern front.

"The unique position that the United States has held since the 1990s as the dominant power in Eurasia is now history," Trenin concluded.



Here's a puzzle.

Why would the president of China, North Korea's closest thing to an ally, snub Kim Jong Un and go to Seoul to woo his archrival, South Korean President Park Geun-hye, which he did to many a raised eyebrow last week?

Fact is, China isn't getting a lot of love from its Asian neighbors these days.

Major trading partner Japan is outraged over what it sees as China's increasingly assertive claim to a set of small, uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. Vietnam and the Philippines have similar beefs over islands in the South China Sea. North Korea, though still reliant on Chinese aid, trade and political backing on the international stage, continues to develop nuclear weapons, and sidle up to Moscow, regardless of Beijing's grumblings.

So, while recalibrating its own relations with Moscow, why not try to sneak a kiss from one of Washington's better friends?

China's overtures to South Korea -- including the Seoul visit -- play into its larger ambitions to build a China-centered network of alliances that sidesteps the U.S. and Japan, said Willy Lam, a political science professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He added that China is already South Korea's No. 1 trade partner.

Beijing is also trying to show the South that China, and not the U.S., is the solution to the North Korea crisis, said Christopher Johnson, a former China analyst with the CIA who's now chairman of China studies at U.S. think tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"Obviously, (the South Koreans) are never going to break away from their alliance with the U.S.," he said. But he added that China has been "trying to convince the South that they, and not the alliance with the U.S. and Japan, are the key to Seoul's North Korea problem."

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