Watching events in Ukraine with bated breath, Japan, Malaysia, Philippines and Taiwan, question how much the United States would do in territorial disputes with a more muscular China. Visiting a newly refurbished aircraft carrier April 7 in the port city of Quingdao, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel got the message that China was the military bully in the Pacific Rim. While China’s proud of its rehab job of an obsolete Russian-built Ukrainian vessel, the real message reached China’s Pacific Rim neighbors: Don’t mess with the Peoples Republic or face China’s beefed up navy and formidable military. “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, locked in a stubborn dispute with China over the sovereignty of Japan’s Senkaku Islands AKA China’s Diayou Islands.
Signed Jan. 19, 1960, the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security obligates the United States to defend Japan’s territorial interests in dispute with foreign governments, especially China. Watching what happened in Ukraine, Japan now has reason to sweat since the U.S. let Putin seize Crimea without any real consequences other than some watered down sanctions. Japan’s bitter dispute with China over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea raises the distinct possibility that the U.S. would not defend Japan from Chinese encroachment. Few experts in the U.S. believe that the U.S. would go to war against China over some inconsequential islands bearing no national security significance to the U.S. “The heavyweights in the region got very scared by the Syrian decision,” said Douglas Paal, a former U.S. diplomat now with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Obama drew so called “red lines” in Syria over Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons but did nothing once proof was verified of mustard and sarin nerve gas. When the International Red Cross reported that 1,400 Syrians died in chemical attacks Aug. 30, 2013, Obama didn’t exercise U.S. military options after al-Assad crossed the “red line.” “They’ve never seen anything like that. They’ve always counted on strong executives bringing the Congress along or going around the Congress to makes sure that our security guarantees will be honore,.” said Paal, signaling that things have changed. After 13 years of war in Afghanistan, thousands of lives lost and trillions of tax dollars spent, Obama isn’t inclined to embroil the U.S. in more foreign adventures. Whatever U.S. allies fear in the Pacific Rim, it’s doubtful Obama will play world policeman and enforce territorial disputes.
Since Putin invaded Crimea March 1, China’s remained silent while the U.S. and Europe tried to dissuade Moscow from more aggression. When it comes to Syria, Obama’s been prodded by former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to intervene militarily to protect Syrian civilians caught in al-Assad’s brutal attempt to cling to power. Russia specifically asked the U.S. and European Union to stay out of the Saudi-Qatari-backed civil war that attempts to oust al-Assad’s small Alawite Shiite minority. Obama’s been reluctant to get into another Mideast civil war, committing U.S. power topple al-Assad. Clinton and McCain urged Obama to install a no-fly zone, something opposed by the Pentagon. Whatever happens in Syria should have no bearing of what geopolitical problems emerge between China and its neighbors in the Pacific Rim.
Former President George W. Bush set a foreign policy based of Sept. 11, where the U.S. was under siege from Islamic radicals. As the Iraq and Afghan wars wound down and Bin Laden was finally killed May 1, 2011, Obama proceeded with his plan to deescalate U.S. involvement in foreign adventures. “We have been talking with them [Asian governments] about the importance of a strong international front to uphold principles that they and we hold dear, the sovereignty and territorial integrity of nations, the need for peaceful resolution of disputes,” said White House National Security Advisor Susan Rice. Rice strongly mirrored the White House position that foreign governments can’t count on the U.S. to play world policeman. Asian governments’ concerned about China’s bullying must now look to diplomacy and the U.N. to resolve territorial disputes.
With less than three years left in his second term, Obama plans to work on the U.S. economy and other domestic challenges like Obamacare. Foreign governments from Syria to Japan have witnessed a distinct pivot in U.S. foreign policy, advising foreign governments that the U.S. no longer plays world policeman. “And we will continue to have that discussion throughout each of the stops on our trip,” said Rice, referring to the limited role the U.S. would play in resolving territorial disputes. While it’s true that the U.S. has mutual defense treaties with Japan, Taiwan, Philippines, etc., the U.S. hasn’t been able to enforce those pacts since the Reagan administration, if not before. Whatever happens between China and its Pacific Rim neighbors, the U.S. won’t commit to more gratuitous military adventures. Foreign governments must get used to Obama’s new foreign policy.
About the Author
John M. Curtis writes politically neutral commentary analyzing spin in national and global news. He’s editor of OnlineColumnist.com and author of Dodging The Bullet and Operation Charisma.