Jon Huntsman, a former U.S. ambassador to China, said he worries that a territorial dispute between China and Japan may escalate into an unintended confrontation.
“The tensions are real,” he said, citing the two nations’ maneuvering over islands in the East China Sea. Risks also are being raised by expanding activities such as surveillance flights in the region by other nations, including South Korea and Russia, he said.
“I worry about the military maneuvers in crowded airspaces and sea lanes” where an incident can escalate into something “beyond anyone’s ability to then de-escalate it,” Huntsman said in an interview on Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt” airing this weekend.
Huntsman, who was President Barack Obama’s ambassador to China and was a candidate in the Republican presidential primaries last year, also said he sees China trying to use its influence to rein in North Korea’s “saber rattling” and to persuade it not to proceed with a third underground nuclear test explosion.
U.S. officials have expressed growing concern about tensions in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly over territorial disputes that relate in part to access to resources such as undersea oil reserves.
Japan said Feb. 7 that Russian fighter jets intruded on its airspace, which Russia’s Defense Ministry denied.
Two Russian Su-27s flew over Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido yesterday for more than a minute, Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said. Russia’s Defense Ministry said in a statement on its website that while jets were in the area as part of an exercise, they didn’t violate Japanese airspace. Japan and Russia have a territorial dispute over several islands near Hokkaido.
The alleged incursion followed accusations that Chinese ships used weapons-targeting radar on a Japanese destroyer and helicopter last month near the islands claimed by both countries.
China said yesterday that its ships didn’t use fire-control radar on Japan naval forces in the East China Sea last month, and called Japanese statements on the issue “irresponsible.” Radar was used simply to monitor a helicopter on Jan. 19 and to track the Japanese destroyer Yudachi on Jan. 30, the Ministry of Defense said in a statement posted on its website.
That incident has undermined efforts to ease tensions between Asia’s two biggest economies over the territorial dispute. The uninhabited islands, called Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan, lie in an area rich in fish, oil and natural gas. Japan’s purchase of three of the islands in September prompted violent protests in China that damaged Japanese businesses.
New U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry discussed regional security issues, including North Korea’s nuclear and missiles program, with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi on Feb. 5, according to State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
At the United Nations, diplomats are weighing how much Chinese opposition they may face to further UN sanctions on North Korea if it conducts a third nuclear blast, which South Korea says appears imminent.
Huntsman said China is “very concerned” about North Korea, a country “that is rogue, that is untrustworthy.”
“They’re going to be very aggressive against North Korea because the implications are very real economically for the Chinese,” he said. “So you look at the whole of Northeast Asia, which is soon to be 20 percent of the world’s GDP --Japan, South Korea, North Korea, Taiwan, the northern part of China. It’s a bustling part of the world.”
When one country such as North Korea “engages in saber-rattling, the whole region becomes on edge, and it gums up trade and commerce, and everyone, everyone feels the pain of that, China particularly,” Huntsman said.