January 7, 2014 1:00 pm JST

US, China battle for influence in Asia in 2014

HIROYUKI AKITA, Nikkei senior staff writer

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono speaks at a joint press conference with other leaders at the APEC summit in Bali on Oct. 8, 2013. (Kyodo)

TOKYO -- It may be impossible to predict what's in store for Asia in 2014. But at least one thing is for sure: The balance of power between the U.S. and China will have a decisive impact on the region's political landscape.

     China is seeking to change the U.S.-led international order in Asia. China's establishment of an air defense identification zone in the East China Sea last November is part of such efforts. Last December, a Chinese naval ship also tried to block the path of a U.S. naval vessel following a Chinese aircraft carrier in the South China Sea.

     China may step up aggressive military moves like these this year, as its national power continues to grow. The big question is how the U.S. administration of President Barack Obama will respond to them.

     The Obama administration is pursuing an Asia-focused foreign policy and trying to counter China's expanding sphere of influence. But it remains to be seen how much progress the Obama administration will actually make toward that goal this year.

     Under such circumstances, Japanese foreign-policy makers and other officials are paying close attention to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum for clues to the future of the tussle between the U.S. and China for influence in the region.

     The APEC is a framework for discussions on economic issues among about 20 economies in the Asia-Pacific region, including Japan, the U.S. and China.

     Holding the rotating chair of the APEC forum this year, China will host a series of APEC meetings, including those of ministers in charge of trade, energy and finance, in various parts of the country starting in May.

     The series of APEC events will culminate in a summit of leaders in a Beijing suburb in early autumn, which will be chaired by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

     The APEC meetings will cover issues in a wide range of areas, including trade and investment rules and environmental and energy cooperation. By presiding over them, China will try to demonstrate its growing presence in the Asia-Pacific region.

     "The Xi administration sees the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership pact, which the Obama administration is actively promoting, as part of Washington's efforts to leave China out and cement the U.S-led international order in Asia," said one source close to U.S.-China relations.

     This fear will probably prompt China to try to take advantage of its role as APEC chair this year to regain some of the lost ground in the competition with the U.S. for influence in the region.

     The odds seem to be against the Obama administration, at least this year.

     The energy the Obama administration can devote to promoting its Asia policy will be fairly limited as it will have to concentrate on campaigning for the Nov. 4 midterm Congressional elections in early autumn, when the APEC summit will be held.

     The quadrennial Congressional elections will be very important for Obama's Democratic Party, which has a majority of seats in the Senate, but not in the House of Representatives.

     If the Democrats fail to end the divided Congress by wresting control of the House from the Republican Party in November, the Obama administration could lose some steam, with two years left before his term expires.

     Obama canceled his Asian tour last autumn, including a visit to Indonesia for the last APEC summit, because of the partial government shutdown stemming from a budget deadlock.

     Obama will probably attend the next APEC summit in China. But as the meeting's chairperson, Chinese President Xi will grab the spotlight, leaving less room for Obama to exert his influence there.

     Meanwhile, another matter of concern for many in Japan is the nation's position in the region.

     Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit to the war-related Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo on Dec. 26 has further strained Japan's ties with China and South Korea and has also drawn criticism even from some in the U.S.

     "China will step up its criticism of what it claims is Japan's 'shift to the right' and try to isolate Japan internationally," one Japanese government source said.

     As this year's APEC chair, Chinese officials will have many opportunities to contact their counterparts from other member countries in the run-up to the summit in early autumn.

     This may raise the prospect of Japan being forced to go on the defensive in its propaganda war with China.