As political tensions increase in East Asia, various pundits are questioning American strategy and ability to address security issues. Most of these questions challenged President Obama’s “Asia Pivot” – the new American defense strategy that calls for strengthening American military might in the Asia-Pacific.

This debate resurfaced as North Korea launched a satellite on December 12th, attracting suspicion that North Korea had not forfeited her ambition to gain intercontinental nuclear attack capabilities.

As recent as December 10th however, North Korea had claimed technical difficulties and announced the launch would be postponed to December 29th. According to Yonhap News, a South Korea-based news company, South Korean government officials had intelligence that North Korea had removed the satellite from the launch site in order to fix the technical problems on Tuesday, one day before the launch.

North Korea surprised the international audience when it fired its satellite into orbit successfully the next day.

Amid international criticism from the United States, the United Nations, and China, the North Korean government claimed the satellite’s prime objective to be weather forecasting.

According to David C. Unger, Professor of American Foreign Policy at the Johns Hopkins University School of International Studies at Bologna, Italy, the satellite launch seemed to strengthen President Obama’s advocacy for an “Asia Pivot” whatever the satellite’s true purposes.

Professor Unger commented, “President Obama’s Pacific pivot counts on two things – one that Pacific nations other than China will welcome a stepped up US role as regional balancer, and two, that China will not see this as a threatening US containment policy and respond to it by accelerating its military build-up and focusing it on access denial weapons like anti-ship missiles.”

Professor Unger continued, “[The North Korean satellite launch] strengthens Obama’s argument that a stronger US balancing role is needed against such an unpredictable and militarily capable regime. This is not the result North Korea intended. But the three ruling generations of the Kim family have an unparalleled record of providing strong arguments to those advocating more assertive US military policies.”

Trouble in the Seas

The North Korean satellite launch coincided with increasing Chinese military appearances near the Japanese-held Senkaku (Chinese: Diayou) Islands. The islands are currently under Japanese government control, while both China and Taiwan claim sovereignty over the islands.

One day after the North Koreans launched their satellite, a Chinese government B-3837 aircraft flew over the disputed islands as the Japanese government responded by sending eight F-15 jets and an early warning aircraft into the airspace. According to the Financial Times, the Chinese aircraft had disappeared by the time Japanese fighter jets had arrived.

Most recently on Christmas Eve, a Chinese Coast Guard propeller-driven Y-12 aircraft shifted its course south toward the disputed islands. In response, the Japanese Self-Defense Air Force launched several of its fighter jets according to Yonhap News. Soon afterwards, the Chinese Y-12 aircraft turned back north and then west towards China.

The islands have been a source of much tension between China and Japan in the recent months, beginning in September when the Japanese central government purchased the island from a private owner. The purchase angered the Chinese government, which perceived it to be an escalation of the territorial dispute, as ownership of the islands passed from private to public hands.

The Chinese government expectedly condemned the purchase, after and during which violent demonstrations occurred in China that damaged factories of Japanese automakers Toyota and Honda.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei stated in September, “The gravely destructive consequences of Japan’s illegal purchase of the Diaoyu Islands are steadily emerging, and the responsibility for this should be borne by Japan.”

Other than vague statements from senior officials in Washington, the U.S. government has not put forth a specific policy concerning this and other Asian territorial disputes, most notably that concerning the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea between China and her Southeast Asian neighbors (Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and the Philippines).

Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed on July 20th 2010 the U.S. had, “a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons and respect for international law in the South China Sea.”

The Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands territorial dispute involves history, international law, international relations, in addition to geopolitics. The three parties involved in the said dispute, Japan, China and Taiwan, base their claims on historical contexts dating back to the 19th Century, international treaties and maritime law.

Should America take a side in these territorial disputes, with the understanding that this issue is complicated to say the least? If so, will this imply providing military support? Or, should America abstain from providing any support at all, including making statements regarding these disputes?

“The Problem with the Pivot”

John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N, labeled President Obama’s North Korean policy as “indifferent”, and argued that “Not making unforced concessions that have the political or economic effect of propping up the regime, which repeatedly promises to give up its nuclear program but never does, avoids one erroneous path but follows another.”

Mr. Bolton added, “Just because North Korea’s nuclear weapons program hasn’t been on the front pages or at the center of political debate doesn’t mean the uranium-enrichment centrifuges haven’t been spinning… Lack of news about the North isn’t good news; it’s simply bad news we haven’t yet heard.”

Regarding the territorial disputes in the South China Sea and Obama’s “Asia Pivot”, Robert S. Ross, Associate at the Harvard University’s John K. Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, argued President Obama’s “Asia Pivot” may not be a prudent policy in his essay “The Problem with the Pivot” in Foreign Affairs (November/December Essay).

“Unfortunately, however, this shift [the “Asia Pivot”] was based on a fundamental misreading of China’s leadership. Beijing’s tough diplomacy stemmed not from confidence in its might – China’s leaders have long understood that their country’s military remains significantly inferior to that of the United States – but from a deep sense of insecurity born of several nerve-racking years of financial crisis and social unrest.”

Professor Ross concluded, “The pivot has already damaged U.S. security interests, and the cost will only grow. If Washington continues down its current path, Chinese resistance to U.S. policies will inevitably increase … The outbreak of hostilities in the region will become a real possibility…”

Nevertheless, the U.S. government is publicly optimistic. According to the American Forces Press Service, on December 19th, a senior defense official stated “Asian leaders are beginning to believe that the U.S. military’s rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific region is real, and they are welcoming the move.”

Whether President Obama’s “Asia Pivot” will be a threat or a much-needed relief for political headaches in East Asia remains to be seen. Especially as North Korean technological capabilities continue to increase with a successful satellite launch on December 12th, South Korea, Japan, and other U.S. allies’ geopolitical fears may be justified.

Territorial disputes, on the other hand, may be even harder to resolve.

With pundits questioning Washington’s purpose and initiative in the Asia Pacific in such a context, 2013 will more clearly show if President Obama’s “Asia Pivot” will be the panacea many proponents claim it to be.