Obama’s Asia trip: a series of unfortunate events

Obama’s Asia trip: a series of unfortunate events

By Daniel Blumenthal

Before President Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao released their joint statement, Obama’s Asia trip was underwhelming. But after the statement, Obama’s foray into Asia went from empty to harmful.

Before Obama arrived in China, the trip’s policy successes were minimal at best. He showed up to a major trade forum, APEC, with no trade policy. If, as Evan Feigenbaum has said, the “business of Asia is business,” without a trade policy Obama is putting America out of business in the world’s most economically dynamic region. And then he was stiffed by Japanese Prime Minister Hatoyama’s outright rejection of the American proposal for a high-level dialogue to resolve basing issues on Okinawa. Not exactly a sterling performance by the new team.

But then came the joint statement after talks with President Hu. Two items in the statement struck me: one about Taiwan, the other in regard to India.

On Taiwan, the statement says:

The two countries reiterated that the fundamental principle of respect for each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is at the core of the three U.S.-China joint communiqués which guide U.S.-China relations. Neither side supports any attempts by any force to undermine this principle. The two sides agreed that respecting each other’s core interests is extremely important to ensure steady progress in U.S.-China relations.

The three communiqués do indeed mention respect for territorial integrity. But it is highly arguable that “respect for … sovereignty and territorial integrity” represent the “core” of the understandings that led to Sino-American rapprochement. The Taiwan issue was treated more delicately by earlier American statesmen. Their basic idea was that we would acknowledge, without accepting, the position that Taiwan is part of China. We would continue strong, unofficial diplomatic ties with the island and we would provide for its security through the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA). We thus found a way to normalize relations with China without letting China have its way with Taiwan. Both sides of the Strait have prospered since the U.S. rapprochement with China and the signing into law of the TRA and relations have been more or less peaceful.

Now consider the situation across the Strait today. China has built a military capable of destroying the island if America does not assist Taiwan. Though obligated by law, the Obama administration has not sold a single weapon system to Taiwan. There is in fact no U.S.-Taiwan agenda under the Obama administration. It is even more dangerous, then, to stress the parts of the Sino-American normalization documents that most appeal to China. Of course China wants us to reiterate that our respect for “territorial integrity” and “sovereignty” is at the core of the three communiqués. Beijing wants us to accept its argument that Taiwan is part of China and that we should respect their sovereignty over the island. Obama has thus far done so through deed. With the joint statement he comes closer to officially accepting the Chinese claim of sovereignty.

On India, the joint statement says: 

The two sides welcomed all efforts conducive to peace, stability and development in South Asia. They support the efforts of Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight terrorism, maintain domestic stability and achieve sustainable economic and social development, and support the improvement and growth of relations between India and Pakistan. The two sides are ready to strengthen communication, dialogue and cooperation on issues related to South Asia and work together to promote peace, stability and development in that region.

Here, President Obama broke new ground in ways harmful to both American and Indian interests. India and Japan are the two countries within Asia that can check China’s desired dominance. For now, China has less to worry about with Japan as the Hatayoma government sorts through its foreign policies. But India is a different matter. It stood firm against China’s pressure when the Dalai Lama visited Arunachal Pradesh, an Indian territory claimed by China. Delhi was sending two messages. First, do not interfere in India’s internal affairs; the Dalai Lama is free to visit anywhere in India. Second, Arunachal Pradesh is India’s territory. China had been putting military pressure on the border region but the Indians did not back down. Delhi is also standing firm in its maritime competition with China in the Indian Ocean. The Indian Navy will not allow China to build a sphere of influence in that maritime region.

Beijing’s India strategy is to tie it down in South Asia to stop it from breaking out as a major power. The strategy has three basic pillars. First, Beijing has supported Pakistan’s nuclear and conventional military programs. Second, China wants an acknowledged sphere of influence in South Asia. And third, Beijing wants to resurrect the so called “hyphenated” approach to India. It thus needs the United States to again think of India as part of an India-Pakistan problem, rather than as an emerging great power.

During the Bush and Clinton administrations, Delhi and Washington negotiated an arrangement that acknowledged Delhi’s global role and increasing influence. This arrangement is of mutual benefit. Pakistan matters less to India as Delhi expands its strategic horizons. As Pakistan’s importance to India lessons, so will Indian-Pakistani tensions. But as India frees itself from the weight of its Pakistan problem it has greater maneuverability to increase its influence in East Asia. China is threatened by that.

Thus, China won a diplomatic victory by getting Washington to agree to “cooperate” on issues of peace and development in South Asia. If China and America work together on South Asian issues, such as peace between India and Pakistan, then China is the great power while India is simply another South Asian country that needs help from others to solve its problems. With the joint statement, Obama officially accorded India junior status in Asia.

We should not be surprised by China’s positions. What is surprising — and extremely problematic — is that on these key issues Obama is acquiescing in them.