(From The Diplomat)
By Van Jackson
I noticed a slight change in focus before leaving the Pentagon last year. When the Obama administration introduced new initiatives as part of its policy of “rebalancing to Asia,” it increasingly involved the South China Sea, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Myanmar. India was becoming a larger strategic priority. And people began a discursive shift from Asia as a “Pacific theater” to Asia as a “maritime theater.”
Since leaving government, I’ve seen the change become more acute, accentuated by ritualism and entrenched positions in Northeast Asia. China and Japan are in a kind of stalemate in the East China Sea, while China and Taiwan are, for now, both vested in preserving the status quo across the Taiwan Strait. Relations between North and South Korea remain frozen in time, and, 50 years after normalization, Japan-South Korea relations show no signs of sustainable improvement.
Northeast Asia is a garden that needs continuous tending. It remains crucial to the global economy and U.S. interests, and a conflict there could be civilization-ending. But policymakers on all sides have been largely boxed in by the strategic choices of their predecessors. The lines of competition are clear and heavily militarized, and the stakes unmistakably high.