In contrast, the Obama administration increased troop levels by 10 percent, signed four new defense agreements with South Korea, increased the size and scale of joint exercises and deferred the handover of operational control of forces until 2015.
The moves, Ross said, came at a time when the presumed target of the posturing – North Korea – posed less of a threat than ever when it came to conventional warfare.
“If you’re Chinese, you begin to ask yourself why this is happening, and it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think that America’s presence in South Korea is not directed at North Korea, but directed at China,” Ross said.
Obama’s picks for secretaries of state and defense, Democrat John Kerry and Republican Chuck Hagel, have records of moderate stances toward China, which analysts say portends a policy of more engagement – not just with the Chinese, but also with other Asian powers such as Japan, India, Vietnam and South Korea.
Kerry, especially, is familiar with Asia from his close involvement with the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs.
“I expect him to pursue an intense strategy of engagement with China, with hedging,” Sneider said. “I expect Kerry to head down a path of trying to engage the new Chinese leadership as far as they’re willing to go.”
Analysts said Kerry should make it a priority to draw the U.S. back from involvement in territorial disputes over contested islands while ensuring that a more neutral stance isn’t viewed as abandoning important allies.
One fight is over the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands; the Chinese call them the Diaoyu Islands. Taiwan also has staked a claim. In December, a Chinese government airplane conducted a flyover of the disputed islands, prompting the Japanese to dispatch eight F-15 jets and an early-warning aircraft in response.
The Chinese plane already was gone by then, and the situation cooled until Christmas Eve, when a Chinese coast guard Y-12 aircraft switched course to the Senkaku Islands. Again, the Japanese launched several fighter jets and the Chinese plane left the area.
“People are watching this scrambling of jets, movements of coast guard vessels around these islands,” Sneider said. “On one hand, the U.S. is going to back the Japanese as our allies. On the other hand, there’s a message to both Japan and China to cool it.”
The other big territorial fight is over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. They’re claimed by China and several other nations: Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Vietnam.
After a long-standing hands-off approach marked by American platitudes about “freedom of navigation” and “peaceful resolution,” Ross said, the Obama administration jumped into the fray in 2010 by gathering the common claim-holders for talks – but notably excluding China.
Southeast Asian countries became so badly divided over how to negotiate over the islands that last July at the 45th annual summit for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations – an economic and political bloc of 10 countries – member states failed to issue a joint diplomatic statement for the first time.
“So now we’re involved,” Ross said of the United States. “All this tangled us up in the territorial disputes, in which we have no interests. The islands are not strategically or economically valuable.”
Asia analysts also warn that too myopic a focus on China’s military buildup might distract from nurturing important trade and diplomatic relationships with other growing powers, such as India, Malaysia and Vietnam.
According to figures compiled by the financial news service Bloomberg, Asia accounts for 25 percent of U.S. exports – in support of 2.4 million American jobs – and 35 percent of its imports. By 2030, Bloomberg noted, Asia is expected to compose 49 percent of the global population, 43 percent of the world’s economy, 35 percent of its trade and 41 percent of energy consumption.
“If the United States wants to play the long game, the region is the Asia Pacific,” said Ronak D. Desai, a fellow with the Truman National Security Project, a leadership training institution in Washington.
“It’s not about whether they’re worried about China’s rise. China is rising,” Desai added. “The question is whether China is rising peacefully and how we’re going to manage that rise in a way that promotes both regional and international stability.”