Don’t Let the Door Hit You on the Way Out, Mr. President

Don’t Let the Door Hit You on the Way Out, Mr. President

President Barack Obama has just returned from his Asian tour — but it may have been better if he had never gone in the first place. As part of his major effort to "rebalance" to Asia by demonstrating U.S. presence and leadership in the region, Obama intended to implement a three-part agenda: assuring allies of the credibility of U.S. security protection, warning China of the dangers of its expanding maritime claim, and fostering a regional free trade zone so the United States can increase its economic advantage. Now, after his April 22-29 trip to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines, Obama’s allies are uncertain, China is increasingly unpleased, and the trade deal remains unsigned.

The only place where Obama made any progress was in reminding U.S. allies of its presence. To assuage Tokyo, Obama clarified that the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea fall under the U.S.-Japan security treaty. And on April 27, the United States announced an agreement with the Philippines that paves the way for the U.S. military to again use Filipino bases. Beijing believes the purpose of that agreement is to deter China, which claims islands and islets in what the Philippines calls its exclusive economic zone.

But the record of Obama’s administration, and that of his predecessor’s, is of security assurances backed up lately only by inaction. The United States has failed to stop Bashar al-Assad in Syria. It failed to stand up to Russia’s adventurism in the formerly Georgian territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008, or in Crimea in March of this year. Granted, none of these places are treaty allies of the United States. But if the United States won’t face Russia in Europe, will it really challenge China in the East and South China seas?    

By refusing to restrain Japan, the United States is instead impelling China to build up its defenses, so it can eventually handle U.S. coercion in regards to the Diaoyu. How can China respect a world power that would ally with its former enemy Japan — while Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe still pays tribute to the militant shrine that honors World War II war criminals? Has the United States forgotten that Japan’s wartime Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, who gave the order for the attack on Pearl Harbor, is also enshrined at Yasukuni? 

Clearly, there exists a territorial dispute between China and Japan over the Diaoyu. Premier Zhou Enlai first proposed "shelving the dispute" in 1972, and received verbal agreement from his Japanese counterpart Kakuei Tanaka. In his 1978 visit to Japan, Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping furthered this proposal by offering to "discuss it without haste in coming years" — sensible advice, to which Japan responded positively. For nearly four decades, China has followed this "shelving-the-dispute" formula — it has only very occasionally sent official vessels to the area. It is Beijing’s restraint that has helped assure the peace and stability in the East China Sea over the last few decades.

Tokyo, however, has consistently pushed the envelope. Despite China’s strong opposition and words of caution from the United States, the Japanese government "nationalized" the three main islands in September 2012. This seriously hurt the status quo of the region — and pressed China to respond. Since then, Beijing has more frequently sent its official vessels to the waters surrounding the islands, in order to demonstrate its sovereignty. This is not provocation, but a natural reaction to Tokyo’s ratcheting up of tensions.

The United States could help reduce the tension by admitting the existence of a territorial dispute over the Diaoyu, and stating that the best approach to preserving peace and stability is for neither party to change the status quo. China and Japan could negotiate, hold talks, and welcome mediation. Tokyo could then de-nationalize the islands, and China could reciprocate by sending fewer official vessels.

Rather than employing that fair approach, Obama has taken the biased and risky move of siding with Japan. And Tokyo’s refusal to recognize the dispute raises the chances of physical confrontation. Instead of containing the sparks generated by his ally, Obama has added fuel to the fire, unnecessarily endangering the United States. To be sure, China is still interested in peacefully settling the dispute with Japan. But given Tokyo’s provocation and Washington’s partial support, regional tensions are higher than they’ve been in more than half a century.

Obama has also failed on the trade portion of his agenda. None of the U.S. allies would be foolish enough to sign a trade deal with Washington just because the United States — whose credibility is increasingly in doubt — has offered. These Asian governments are elected by their own people, not appointed by the White House. TPP in its present form, as desired by the United States, could jeopardize these governments domestically, since the TPP could lead to substantial job losses in these countries. 

The United States is increasingly unable to balance Asia and the world. Obama may not recognize that, but one of his successors certainly will. The future for all of these countries lies increasingly with Asia — not with the United States.