It’s never good to dip into one’s savings just to live large. Gluttony and largess – when one can ill afford it – is foolish … and a sign of decadence. To me, the U.S. so-called pivot to Asia – emblemized by President Obama’s trip to Japan – represents just that.
The New York Times – even with its usual spin PR in over-drive – already calls the trip a “setback.” In an article titled “Obama Suffers Setbacks in Japan and the Mideast,” the Times reported:
TOKYO — President Obama encountered setbacks to two of his most cherished foreign-policy projects on Thursday, as he failed to achieve a trade deal that undergirds his strategic pivot to Asia and the Middle East peace process suffered a potentially irreparable breakdown.
Mr. Obama had hoped to use his visit here to announce an agreement under which Japan would open its markets in rice, beef, poultry and pork, a critical step toward the trade pact. But Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was not able to overcome entrenched resistance from Japan’s farmers in time for the president’s visit.
This trip was supposed to show that the U.S. is back – and that the pivot is back on track. Yet, on the Washington Post, you will not see any article on Obama’s Japan trip on the top (home) page. On New York Times Home Page, you see just one (the one linked above) – with that one lamenting the visit’s failure.
If the “pivot” is back, it seems hard to tell. The U.S. seems distracted by other world events in Middle East Ukraine.
As the Times article continued:
In Jerusalem, Israel’s announcement that it was suspending stalemated peace negotiations with the Palestinians, after a reconciliation between the Palestine Liberation Organization and the militant group Hamas, posed yet another obstacle to restarting a troubled peace process in which Secretary of State John Kerry has been greatly invested.
The setbacks, though worlds apart in geography and history, speak to the common challenge Mr. Obama has had in translating his ideas and ambitions into enduring policies. He has watched outside forces unravel his best-laid plans, from resetting relations with Russia to managing the epochal political change in the Arab world. On Thursday, as Russia staged military exerciseson the border with Ukraine, Mr. Kerry denounced broken promises from the Kremlin but took no specific action.
Mr. Obama has not given up. Indeed, his advisers insisted that they had achieved a “pathway” to resolving the sticking points in a trade deal during marathon talks that continued until just before the president left Tokyo for Seoul. There were indications, administration officials said, that some progress had been made in trade talks.
On Friday in South Korea, Mr. Obama continued his weeklong quest to breathe life into his shift to Asia. Mr. Kerry, the tireless campaigner for Middle East peace, was still working the phones, trying to maneuver the Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating room.
[Underline above by me]
Obama’s vaunted “pivot” is looking more and more like what Eric X. Li has described as a “continuously swirling pivot,” requiring, as the Times article called it, Obama on this occasion to “breathe life” to resuscitate.
Be that as it may be, Obama is bent on breathing life, and in breathing life, Obama gave a bombshell yesterday. The BCC in an article titled “Obama Asia tour: US-Japan treaty ‘covers disputed islands'” gave a little more detail:
Mr Obama’s trip – which ends on 29 April – comes nearly seven months after he cancelled a visit to the region because of a US government shutdown.
Officials say it is aimed at reassuring America’s Asian allies of its commitment to the region amid concern over China’s growing power.
On Wednesday Mr Obama had an informal dinner with Mr Abe. The two leaders then held talks on Thursday morning and gave a joint press conference.
“Article five [of the US-Japan security treaty] covers all territories under Japan’s administration including [the] Senkaku islands,” Mr Obama said, echoing comments published in Wednesday’s Yomiuri newspaper. “We do not believe that they should be subject to change unilaterally.”
“This is not a new position. This is a consistent one,” he said.
However, Mr Obama also said he told Mr Abe that it “would be a profound mistake to continue to see escalation around this issue instead of dialogue”.
The islands are called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.
This is a bombshell of sorts because for years U.S. has publicly stated they would remain “neutral” in any island disputes between China and Japan. Sure the Chinese side have for some time questioned U.S.’s sincerity. And recent remarks by various U.S. officials (e.g. Clinton, Hagel, etc.) all points to the U.S. taking side. Still, this is important because it came directly from the president.
Some may think that this is end of dispute for China. I mean, with the full might of the U.S. military behind Japan’s claim to Senkaku islands, what option does China have?
But the wording is important. Obama was careful not to remark on sovereignty during his announcement. And even as he announced that the U.S.-Japan Defense Treaty covers the Diaoyutai /Senkaku Islands, he also warned Japan not to escalate … and importantly, to start a dialogue with China.
The tone of the whole announcement suggest that the Defense Treaty is not about “law” or “obligations” per se … but about political will. If it were about “law” or “obligation,” Obama would not have lectured Japan about starting a dialogue. Instead, it sounds more like an edict. the Treaty is qualified … by America’s largess and political will.
The Time’s article described it this way:
Mr. Obama also declared that the United States was obligated by a security treaty to protect Japan in its confrontation with China over a clump of islands in the East China Sea. But he stopped short of siding with Japan in the dispute regarding who has sovereignty over the islands, and carefully calibrated his statement to avoid antagonizing China.The net result, seen in a news conference in which the leaders referred to each other a bit stiffly as Barack and Shinzo, was an alliance clearly on firmer footing than it was earlier, but still vulnerable to political frailties on each side.
Besides the bombshell announcement – albeit couched in careful wording – I want to take a step back and take a look at the broader the context of Obama’s announcement.
First, China’s recent “assertiveness” around Diaoyutai is not to start a shooting war with Japan. It is only to “force” Japan to concede there is a dispute. In that context, Obama’s words to defend Japan, in practical terms, is empty. But the act of the announcement carries important, if nuanced, ramifications. Finally, China has forced the U.S. and Japan to concede that there is a dispute. With Obama now publicly announcing the U.S. coming to Japan’s aid for the whole world to see and all but ordering Japan to start a dialogue with China over Diaoyutai / Senkaku, there can be no doubt in any objective person’s mind that there is a dispute!
Second, the (sometimes overlooked) fact that Japan needs U.S. support over its dispute with China means that China finally presents a credible threat now over the East China Seas. If China did not (as have been the case for most of the last century), the U.S. can truly remain neutral and allow Japan to play the game. The only reason the U.S. has abandoned its “honest broker” status in the Asia Pacific is because of the strength of China and the weakness of Japan: specifically Japan’s inability to bring itself to face China in negotiations when China’s brings to the table a credible military force.
Third, perhaps with some irony, President Obama seems to have made a fool of himself caught doing double-speak in front of the Chinese audience when he announced that “[t]he policy of the United States is clear – the Senkaku Islands are administered by Japan and therefore fall within the scope of Article 5 of the US-Japan Treaty of Mutual Co-operation and Security. … And we oppose any unilateral attempts to undermine Japan’s administration of these islands.”
Given how the U.S. has been so vocal in opposing anything China does (be it patrols in the East China Seas, ADIZ over the East China Seas, etc.) that has the look of “unilateral” action, here Chinese people see the U.S. turn around (coddling Japan) unilaterally pronouncing that administrative areas now come under the U.S.-Japan Defense Treaty.
Lest people get confused. Obama’s words notwithstanding, the treaty was never interpreted that way until now (hence all the melodrama surrounding the announcement). Even stranger, the U.S. has no sovereignty rights over Diaoyutai / Senkaku. Yet it is ready to pronounce unilaterally its right hand administrative control of the islands to Japan … and to defend Japan’s right to that control?
Fourth, with U.S. publicly supporting Japan over China in their island disputes, U.S. is burning fast its reserve of goodwill with the Chinese people. Much has been written about “soft power” these days. But the single strongest strand of “soft power” the U.S. commands over the world, in my opinion, is the goodwill of the Chinese people (notwithstanding the Cold War). The basis of that good will lies in the narrative of Americans fighting a good and just war in WWII has strong cache in China. In contrast, that narrative does not have much cache in Japan at all. By supporting Japan now in contradiction of the Potsdam Declaration, the U.S. loose loosing the narrative of the U.S. as a just power for at least 1.3 billion people. That would be a huge loss for America.
Fifth, Abe has made several speeches about how Japan needs to move the world beyond the post-WWII world – echoed somewhat by Hagel recently saying that China should “be informed by history but not driven by it.” The trouble for Japan is that it is trying to move beyond the post-WWII world unilaterally – without moving with China (or S. Korea). This desire to move unilaterally beyond the post-WWII world order is against the interest of U.S. also. An emboldened Japan can easily spin its post-WWII narrative into one of victimization by U.S. at any time. The U.S., I believe, understands the problem, but is too distracted by other world affairs or too shortsighted to control Japan on this.
In summary, despite the cautiousness of the wording on the U.S. side on Diaoyutai / Senkaku, I believe the U.S. has bumbled onto the wrong side of history here. By ganging up with Japan against China over a core interest of China, and in the process in joining with Japan in whitewashing history, the U.S. has dipped deeply into its precious savings of goodwill with the Chinese people – all for tactical political advantage? That is not very smart. The move may set off tectonic motions future historians will point to represent the beginnings of the the end of U.S. influence in the Asia Pacific. The sad thing for future U.S. generations is: it needed not have been this way.