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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.

  1. ersim
    March 16th, 2014 at 15:25 | #1

    Brzezenski is in error to say 1905 was the year the U.S. became a “Pacific power”. It was the year 1898, when they “acquired” the Phillipines from the war with Spain. Two years later, 1900, they were part of the so called “Eight Nation Alliance” or “Eight Powers Expedition” to occupy China to contain the so called “Boxer Rebellion’.

  2. cross1315
    March 16th, 2014 at 20:43 | #2

    Thank you for your insight raffiaflower. I am also curious how you guys think Crimea joining Russia affects China, in particular Sino – US relation and Sino – Russia relation. Even though I strongly support Russia regarding Crimea joining her, I do worry that this might backfire on her in the future.

  3. raffiaflower
    March 17th, 2014 at 01:14 | #3

    @cross1315: the interviews with the Russian and Ukrainian ambassadors to China, given to Global Times, are useful signposts to future Sino-Russian relationships post-Ukraine.

  4. cross1315
    March 17th, 2014 at 15:22 | #4

    @Raffiaflower, thank you for the reference. I have already looked at the interview you refer to; however, I do worry that in this case Russia might be fallen into her own trap. To be more precise, what is Russia going to do when its minorities (covertly supported by the US and the EU to certain extent) want to have a referendum regarding their own independence? Ethnic Russians consist of roughly 80% of Russia’s total population.

    Very few intellectuals – like you Raffiaflower, Allen, Black Pheonix and other writers in this blog – can critically analyze the reports propagated by the Western media. Russia cannot win this PR war against the Western Media. Look at the German – the one nation among the EU that has probably shown restraints regarding possible sanctions against Russia – media reports.

    I sincerely hope Russia to realize that strong foreign policy actually comes from the strong self – sufficient economy backed by strong domestic sector. Without realizing that economic power is military power, but far more destructive, Russia will be in difficult position diplomatically, economically, and politically.
    Note that not a single nation in post – soviet states support Russia’s action.

    Whatever the outcome is, the winner in this Ukraine conflict will be China. We should thank the US, the EU, and Russia for granting China another window of opportunity.

  5. pug_ster
    March 17th, 2014 at 18:56 | #5

    It is pretty obvious that this coup is a textbook example of other NED/CIA funded American thugs in Washington. Go to NED’s website, you see a whole slew of fake NGO’s that NED funded.


    CIA paid thugs throw Molotov cocktails at the riot police and snipers shoot down police and rioters indiscriminately.

    Today, Obama pouting like a 5 year old child when Crimea voted to get away from Ukraine. Since he is against elections shows what kind of fascist he is.

    In lesser known news, NED/CIA paid local morons to do the same thing in Venezuela, throw Molotov Cocktails and shoot at innocent people in the fake ‘protests’ in Venezuela. Create general lawlessness in the country and blame the government for not doing anything about it. Fortunately, the Venezuelan government put down these thugs. You notice in the website the picture of someone holding a Molotov Cocktail while CNN propaganda says that it is a ‘protest’? Unfortunately, most Americans believe this garbage.


    No doubt that these NED/CIA funded the largely failed coup against the Chinese government at 6/4, imagine what kind of world we will be in if they actually succeeded? I hate to imagine.

  6. N.M.Cheung
    March 18th, 2014 at 06:06 | #6

    It may be a winter of discontent for U.S. foreign policies, but Obama obviously is over his head as an illustration of Peter’s principle. As Eric X Li stated China is a much better meritocracy than western media’s propaganda smear of princeling. He’s a perfect illustration of Emperor has no clothes, with parachuting into the White House with one ghost written speech at Democratic National convention after a meager 4 years of undistinguishing accomplishment in the Senate. I was never his fan after he stated his idol was Ronald Reagan rather than FDR, the Democratic statesman. U.S. democracy is essentially a P.R. contest on the order of American Idol.
    As for China’s reaction to Crimea, I expect that China’s principle of non-interference on other countries will not be supportive of Russia, but given the real politic she will be neutral as her vote of abstaining in U.N. Security council shows. For ASEAN countries they will be wise to be accommodative with China than threw in with U.S., China will not insist on 9 dot boundary and will probably be happy to split some differences and joint exploration of resources. Aquino is a fool and buffoon and probably will wind up back to a semi colonial relation back with U.S.. China has a long term outlook but also long memory and will not accommodate Japan on East China sea. China has vision of outlook to conquer environmental problems and looking to outer space rather than South China sea, U.S. is really myopia into thinking containing China in Western Pacific rather than cooperating with China in outer space.

  7. N.M.Cheung
    March 18th, 2014 at 06:22 | #7

    One other thing about Philippines. With the climate warming and increase sea levels and atmospheric disturbances, I expect there will be more annual typhoons like that devastate Philippines last year and she will be a basket case and black hole for aids for years to come. The country has been misruled since independence and U.S. can have her and her burdens.

  8. Machiavellianism
    March 18th, 2014 at 16:25 | #8

    FYI Obama worked for the CIA in the early 1980s. He employed by a front group called the Business International Corporation.

  9. ersim
    March 19th, 2014 at 07:50 | #9

    The “independence” of the Phillipines is an illusion. It is smoke and mirrors. Since 1898 they have become a U.S. posesion.

  10. Black Pheonix
    March 26th, 2014 at 10:31 | #10

    Unfortunately for Russia, she is too weak to try to hold onto her influence against the Western incursions. Her population is too few, and her economy is too corrupt. It opens her up to further interference.

    Fortunately for Russia, China (and some smaller nations) are buffering her Eastern front against Western influences.

    Japan is caught in the middle between Russia and US. On 1 hand, Japan wants to talk nice with Russia, to encourage Russia to hand back the Kuril islands. On the other 1 hand, Japan is obligated to side with US as an “ally”.

    Just 2 days ago, Japan released a government statement, that it was condemning Russia for taking Crimea, but that only came with Japan “freezing” some talks with Russia on investments, and military cooperation. (NOTE the obvious absence of the mentioning of Kuril).

    I personally think Japan made a serious error with Russia on this one. Russia was already somewhat wary of US’s Asian Pivot. This may prompt Russia to further seek China’s help to keep Japan under check, and to prevent US from making any incursions into Russia’s Eastern front.

  11. Black Pheonix
    March 26th, 2014 at 10:43 | #11

    1 thing some what related to Obama:

    The 1 takeaway I got from hearing about all this news about Obamacare and how it’s not enrolling enough people is, Americans are really quite lazy.

    I mean, seriously, the government passed the law, and want to give FREE stuff to people, but people won’t take the time to enroll??

    Yeah, government bureaucracy sux, and that website is probably not that great either, but come on, this is not like paying taxes.

    These modern generations of Americans really embody the “Spoon-feed me” mentality, and it even makes me depressed.

  12. raffiaflower
    April 7th, 2014 at 19:49 | #12

    Columnist Patrick Smith concludes in his article Why Obama’s Pivot Asia will Prove a Non-Event:“Preventing and excluding China is altogether retro, 180 degrees in the wrong direction. Think of the Dutch boy with his finger in the dike. Then think of the pivot’s long-term chances.”

    – See more at: http://www.thefiscaltimes.com/Columns/2014/04/07/Why-Obama-s-Pivot-Asia-Will-Prove-Non-Event#sthash.GOxdUkHc.dpuf

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