If you're an Asia-focused security analyst, you've certainly been earning your paycheck these last few months. To wit: In late November, Beijing unilaterally declared an Air Defense Identification Zone over a broad swath of the Pacific Ocean; the U.S. responded by flying two B-52 bombers straight through it a few days later. South Korea and Japan then followed suit. Just this week, South Korea declared its own zone that overlaps waters and a submerged rock that China also claims.
The situation underscores why the U.S. needs to maintain a robust naval and air force presence in Asia: because it keeps all the regional powers — rising, declining or otherwise — from escalating a crisis into a conflagration. Treaties and trade help ameliorate the jagged regional political dynamics, but American hard power on the seas and in the air is what keeps tensions from rising to a fever pitch.
How can the U.S. continue to stabilize Asia without firing a shot? One way is to continue to blunt Japan from making a serious move that would further enflame Chinese nationalist passions, and, to a lesser extent, vice versa. Once these nationalist fires are re-lit in Asia, it could burn down the whole continent, as we saw a few generations ago.
Some Asian capitals are already a little wary of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's rhetoric, and most of the continent still remembers the last time Tokyo had an activist foreign policy. Flare-ups of anti-Japanese sentiment in China and South Korea still frequently occur; while Beijing might be sponsoring these protests for its own ends (or at least turning a blind eye to them), it does stem from a deep-seated wellspring of animosity that dates back generations. America lowers the temperature just by being the biggest and baddest navy and air force on the block, as we keep both Japan and China from upsetting the regional apple cart.
Contrast America's stabilizing, temperature-lowering behavior with the way the People's Republic handles its regional disputes. Besides declaring the defense zone, China frequently sends its coast guard vessels into disputed waters around the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands; it engages in a long-simmering dispute with the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan and others over the Spratly Islands; it wrestles with India over a historic border region; and continues to have border issues with other nations to its west. In fact, Obama should send a "thank you" note to Chinese President Xi Jinping for reminding our Asian allies of the benefits of the American security umbrella.
Despite Beijing's oft-repeated claim that all it wants is regional stability, its huge size and traditional role as the Asian hegemon gives every neighboring country cause for concern. If one were an Asian leader — even one not allied with the U.S.— which country is preferred to keep trade routes open, patrol the high seas and maintain the peace? The choice is obvious.
A robust U.S. military presence plays a unique role in the area too, for America allows every leader to "save face" with their conservative internal political factions. Despite America's tens of thousands of troops in the region, the USS George Washington aircraft carrier battle group home-ported in Japan and our insistence that we are a Pacific power, the U.S. remains physically (and occasionally psychologically) distant from the Asian landmass. So, leaders can tell their political hardliners in their capitals the Americans forced them to take a specific course of action, or that the Americans are too strong to be challenged militarily; therefore compromise is essential. By assuming the role of "the other," we play a very helpful third-party role in smoothing over regional tensions.
America's military presence keeps the peace in Asia. And we will continue to keep the peace for the foreseeable future. To retreat from Asia (as some have argued) will only serve hardliners in every country and throw the region into political turbulence that it has not felt in generations. We must continue to remind ourselves that it is in our interest to play the honest broker, since a regional conflict "over there" will severely impact us over here. Asian leaders know this — but policymakers here in faraway Washington, D.C. must realize it too.
Aki Peritz is the senior policy adviser for national security at Third Way and author of "Find, Fix, Finish: Inside the Counterterrorism Campaigns that Killed bin Laden and Devastated Al Qaeda."