The Winter of Obama’s Discontent
Into every life a little rain must fall – even that of a behemoth superpower.
Picture the President of the United States and his masters of the universe – more formally known as the American Cabinet – with Ukraine-driven nuclear umbrellas unfurled against a downpour of unexpected setbacks in foreign policy lately.
In the winter of his discontent, Barack Obama must be yearning for the new hope of spring heralded by cherry blossoms of Washington’s Tidal Basin. But he should also heed the Japanese proverb: “ “Though on the sign it is written: ‘Don’t pluck these blossoms’ /it is useless against the wind, which cannot read.”
Indeed, the winds of change have blown against American directives, and scattered its best-laid schemes, from the South China Seas to the West Eurasian plains.
To start with, events in Ukraine have gone wildly off-course and are now into uncharted waters, edging towards Cold War 2.0 between Russia and the West.
Both sides are courting China in a rush to the trenches. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has stated that Beijing is batting for Team Russia.
China’s official position seems pendulous, the real essence lost in translation (deliberately?). But on sanctions against Russia, it has clearly drawn its line in the sand.
The Ukrainian crisis has come quickly as the first major test of the China-Russia partnership, and likely to be a key inflection point in the emergence of a multi-polar world – Putin’s adviser has warned of retaliation by crashing the role of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency.
Maybe Obama can find comfort in Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s announcement that China will not “allow’’ war on the Korean peninsula.
So, in case Russia and the West decide to war-war rather than jaw-jaw – as Winston Churchill said – over Ukraine, pugnacious Pyongyang won’t be grabbing the opportunity to lob a missile (or two) at Seoul or Tokyo while their patron is jousting elsewhere. Well, not with China’s permission, anyway.
Of course Beijing’s good offices on the Eastern front could also dis-incentivize South Korea from patching up its spats over history and territory with blood enemy Japan.
Ahead of Obama’s visits to its Asian “allies’’, Washington is anxious that their leaders will at least put up some semblance of a fictive alliance, to enhance American leadership and the `pivot’, especially to Asean.**
However, despite the heavy pitch, Southeast Asia’s leaders – except perhaps Benigno Aquino – are not sold on the fairytale of Washington as their white knight fiercely contesting some 800lb gorilla.
Obama’s rebalancing/pivot/whatever – the fig leaf for a `contain China’ strategy – is primarily to ensure that the gravitational pull of Beijing in its historic sphere of influence does not shut America out of political influence and, more importantly, commercial opportunities, in the 600 million-strong region.
While some Asean members may want to hedge against potential Chinese hegemony, as Fareed Zakaria notes, none wants to throw a red rag at Beijing in a spelt-out coalition.
The risible reductio ad Hitlerum interview of Aquino in New York Times is not echoed by all claimants in the South China Seas islands dispute.
Malaysia sticks by behind-the-scenes diplomacy. Whether the country that commands the strategic Straits of Malacca toughens its stance after Obama’s visit remains to be seen.
You can’t fool all of the people all of the time, and American agitprop is oft-times put in its place, recently by Kishore Mahbubani. “Just as Europe does not threaten the US in any way, ASEAN also does not threaten China in any way,’’ the former diplomat wrote.
The dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at National University Singapore envisages a `high-trust’ relationship between China and Asean – hiccups and all – along the lines of the trans-Atlantic partnership cemented by cultural affinities and people-to-people ties.
Ambiguities such as the Nine-Dash Line can be smoothened out at the negotiating table. “When China emerges as the pre-eminent economic power in the world, it will have the same interest as the US to maintain freedom of navigation on the high seas.’’
Tommy Koh, president of Unclos in its concluding two years, stresses that though all signatories of the treaty are bound by its conventions, `historic rights’ – though a minority view – are validated by some of its articles.
Disputes can be settled through means such as negotiation, or the alternative of setting aside sovereignty claims and jointly develop areas developing maritime claims, writes Singapore’s ambassador-at-large.
However, a break-out of peace between China and Asean is unlikely to be good news for pivoting parties, much less be its desired result.
American policy’s kingmaker Zbigniew Brzezenski asserts that Washington has been a Pacific power since 1905, the year of the Roosevelt-brokered treaty for the Russo-Japanese War that triggered the gradual unravelling of Tsarist Russia. (The American Interest, March 6th).
But the arc of Asian cultures from Myanmar to the Koreas has been around much longer, and will be here even should America decide to retreat into splendid isolation.
China is the rising tide that has raised all boats, and even the mightiest navy may find it hard – over the long haul – to resist the forces of nature.
Ultimately, the Western Pacific is not a Chinese pond nor an American lake. It is a regional commons, and parties on its periphery have to re-size their roles, including Russia which seeks a naval presence in Vietnam, Seychelles and Singapore, among others.
As spring bursts forth with cherry blossoms, President Obama should – before embarking on his Asian trip – contemplate their delicate beauty and also the similarly fragile realities for Washington in a changing world.