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Asia Seeks Obama Assurance in Spats    04/19 09:27

   As President Barack Obama travels through Asia this coming week, he will 
confront a region that's warily watching the crisis in Ukraine through the 
prism of its own territorial tensions with China.

   WASHINGTON (AP) -- As President Barack Obama travels through Asia this 
coming week, he will confront a region that's warily watching the crisis in 
Ukraine through the prism of its own territorial tensions with China.

   Each of the four countries on Obama's itinerary --- Japan, South Korea, 
Malaysia and the Philippines --- has a dispute with Beijing over islands in the 
South and East China Seas. Their leaders will be weighing Obama's willingness 
to support them if those conflicts boil over.

   "What we can say after seeing what happened to Ukraine is that using force 
to change the status quo is not acceptable," said Japanese Prime Minister 
Shinzo Abe, whose country is in one of the fiercest disputes with China.

   Administration officials, including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, have 
taken a tougher line on the territorial issues in recent weeks, sternly warning 
China against the use of military force and noting that the U.S. has treaty 
obligations to defend Japan in particular. But in an attempt to maintain good 
relations with China, the U.S. has not formally taken sides on the question of 
which countries should control which islands.

   Analysts say there are concerns that China could be emboldened by the 
relative ease with which Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine over 
U.S. objections, as well as the very real possibility that Moscow could take 
more land. Moreover, some in Asia question Obama's ability to follow through on 
his security pledges in light of his decision last summer to pull back on plans 
for a military strike against Syria.

   "The heavyweights in the region got very scared by the Syrian decision," 
said Douglas Paal, a longtime U.S. diplomat in Asia who now is vice president 
of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "They've never seen anything 
like that. They've always counted on strong executives bringing the Congress 
along or going around the Congress to make sure that our security guarantees 
will be honored."

   Obama's advisers say they see little evidence thus far that China has been 
encouraged by Russia's incursions into Ukraine. Instead, they say Beijing 
appears to be viewing with concern the Kremlin's attempts to sway pro-Russian 
populations in areas of Ukraine, given China's own restive minority populations 
in border regions.

   U.S. officials also have tried to keep China from supporting Russia's moves 
in Ukraine by appealing to Beijing's well-known and vehement opposition to 
outside intervention in other nations' domestic affairs. Officials say they 
plan to emphasize that stance when they discuss Asia's territorial disputes 
with regional leaders this week.

   "We have been talking with them about the importance of a strong 
international front to uphold principles that they and we all hold dear, the 
sovereignty and territorial integrity of nations, the need for peaceful 
resolution of disputes," said Susan Rice, Obama's national security adviser. 
"And we will continue to have that discussion throughout each of the stops on 
our trip."

   Obama's eight-day Asia swing is a makeup for a visit he canceled last fall 
because of the U.S. government shutdown. Leaving Washington on Tuesday, he will 
stop briefly in Oso, Wash., where mudslides killed dozens of people. He will 
arrive Wednesday in Japan.

   Obama's advisers say there are no plans to scrap the trip if the situation 
in Ukraine worsens. But the president may have to make decisions while 
traveling about imposing more penalties against Russia if a deal to ease the 
crisis collapses.

   The U.S., Russia, Ukraine and the European Union signed an agreement 
Thursday. But already, the prospects of it holding appear slim, with 
pro-Russian insurgents in eastern Ukraine refusing to leave the government 
buildings they occupy in nearly a dozen cities.

   Russia's foreign ministry on Saturday said it would offer strong help to 
Ukraine, but that responsibility for reducing tensions rested with Ukrainians, 
not outsiders.

   Compared with Russia's actions in Ukraine, China has been relatively 
restrained in its territorial ambitions. But tensions spiked last fall when 
Beijing declared an air defense zone over a large part of the East China Sea, 
including the disputed islands controlled by Japan and a maritime rock claimed 
by both China and South Korea. China's coast guard also has blocked Filipino 
ships in the South China Sea in recent weeks.

   China claims virtually the entire South China Sea. Nansha is the Chinese 
name for the Spratlys, a chain of resource-rich islands, islets and reefs 
claimed partly or wholly by China, the Philippines, Malaysia and other 
southeast Asian nations.

   Former Philippine national security adviser Roilo Golez said he expects to 
Beijing to avoid Russian-style moves on any of the disputed territories, in 
large part because China is surrounded by American allies from the East China 
Sea to the Strait of Malacca and may have to deal with the U.S. military in the 
region if it undertakes a major act of aggression.

   "It would be a folly on the part of China to do anything drastic, to do a 
Crimea," Golez said.


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