SINGAPORE — The Obama administration’s three-year-old plan to shift its foreign policy focus to Asia was supposed to shore up interests in a critical region, push new free trade pacts and re-establish United States influence as a balance to a growing China, after a decade of inattention.
But as Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel visited this city-state for a security conference with all of the interested parties on Friday, that much-vaunted Asia policy appeared to be turning into more of a neighborhood street fight, with the United States having to simultaneously choose sides and try to play the role of referee.
All around Asia, China is pushing and probing at America’s alliances, trying to loosen the bonds that have kept the countries close to Washington and allowed the United States to be the pre-eminent power in the region since World War II.
In just the past week, China traded punches with Vietnam and Japan. A Chinese fishing vessel rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing boaton Monday near a Chinese deepwater oil rig that was placed in disputed waters off the coast of Vietnam. That confrontation followed a close encounter last Saturday in which two pairs of Chinese fighter jets flew close to Japanese surveillance and electronic intelligence planes, in disputed airspace claimed by both countries.
By itself, neither encounter rises to the level of the trans-Pacific standoff that occurred in the East China Sea last year after Chinaasserted military authority over airspace that included uninhabited islands claimed by Japan.
But taken together, those episodes form a pattern of escalating maritime and air tensions in the Pacific that have frustrated and worried American officials.
In his strongest words yet on the territorial disputes, Mr. Hagel on Saturday morning implicitly accused China of “intimidation and coercion” as he delivered his keynote address to the conference. China has called the South China Sea “a sea of peace, friendship and cooperation,” Mr. Hagel said. “But in recent months, China has undertaken destabilizing, unilateral actions asserting its claims in the South China Sea.”
China’s goal is to show Washington that if it maintains alliances in Asia, it risks a fight with Beijing, said Hugh White, a former senior Australian defense official who worked closely with Washington and is now professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University.
“China is deliberately doing these things to demonstrate the unsustainability of the American position of having a good relationship with China and maintaining its alliances in Asia, which constitute the leadership of the United States in Asia,” Mr. White said.
China is betting that America, tired and looking inward, will back off, he said, eroding its traditional place of influence in Asia and enhancing China’s power.
But even as Mr. Hagel and the United States have adopted a public posture that backs Japan — and, to a lesser extent, the Philippines, Vietnam and any other country that finds itself at odds with China — some administration officials have privately expressed frustration that the countries are all engaged in a game of chicken that could lead to war.
“None of those countries are helping matters,” a senior administration official said. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to talk candidly about American policy, said that the United States would publicly back Japan and that treaty obligations mean that if Japan and China go to war, the United States will almost certainly be dragged into it. But, he added, administration officials have privately prodded their Japanese counterparts to think carefully before acting, and to refrain from backing China into a corner.
“If these are kids in the schoolyard, they are running around with scissors,” said Vikram J. Singh, who until February was the United States deputy assistant secretary of defense for South and Southeast Asia and is now the vice president for national security at the Center for American Progress. “Wars start from small things, often by accident and miscalculation — like dangerous maneuvers by aircraft that result in a collision or aggressive moves that lead to an unexpected military response.”
Speaking at the opening session of the conference on Friday, Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, who has had a role in stirring tensions in the region by embracing a more assertive military stance, bypassed a question about whether he was willing to go to war with China over the disputed islands in the East China Sea, which Japan calls the Senkaku and China calls the Diaoyu. Instead, he said cryptically that it was “important that we all make efforts” so that certain “contingencies can be prevented.”
Mr. Hagel and the large American military contingent on hand, including Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Adm. Samuel J. Locklear III, the commander of the United States Pacific Command, spent their time shuttling from delegation to delegation to make sure those contingencies did not come up.
“Any good teacher knows that you want to get the kids to behave in the first place, rather than try to referee a dispute that breaks out,” said Andrew L. Oros, an associate professor of political science at Washington College in Chestertown, Md., and a specialist on East Asia.
“Millions of people in China, Korea and many countries in this region have been killed by the Japanese Army,” the Chinese officer said, asking whether Mr. Abe planned to honor them. Mr. Abe spoke of the remorse that Japan felt after World War II. But he added that it was common for world leaders to honor those who fought for their country.
While much of the maritime and air disputes go back to ancient territorial claims, the Obama administration may have fanned the tensions with its shift toward Asia, some foreign policy experts said. Many Chinese believe that shift is intended to check China’s rise.
“For that reason, you cannot expect China to welcome the alliance system because it doesn’t serve China’s interest,” said Wu Xinbo, the director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai.
China’s president, Xi Jinping, gave a strong hint of his objectives in a speech in Shanghai on May 19, when he outlined a new Asian security strategy that would deliberately exclude the United States, analysts said.
“We need to innovate our security concepts, establish a new regional security cooperation architecture and jointly build a shared win-win road for Asian security,” Mr. Xi said at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia, a group that includes China, Russia and Asian countries but not the United States, according to the state-run news agency Xinhua.
At another conference, in Beijing, Adm. Sun Jianguo, the deputy chief of the general staff of the People’s Liberation Army, expanded on Mr. Xi’s ideas, describing the American alliance system as an antiquated relic of the Cold War that should be replaced by an Asia-centric security architecture, participants said.
As word filtered through the region about Mr. Xi’s new concept — so far, only sketched in a bare-bones outline — it was referred to as “ ‘Asia for Asians,’ which means China decides as the biggest guy on the block,” said a senior Asian diplomat from a country allied with the United States, who declined to be named for fear of alienating China.