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Obama’s well-timed pivot to the Pacific

by Jim Hoagland

The Washington Post

President Barack Obama’s determination to get U.S. troops out of the Middle East and Central Asia is much clearer than are his purposes in repositioning U.S. military assets into the Pacific. He seems at times to be a man fleeing a burning building looking for a calmer place to go.

But his geographic “pivot” can work if Obama defines his goals realistically and pursues them with a combination of firmness and opportunism. By design or otherwise, he is locating pressure points and acquiring bargaining chips in Asia that can be useful in fashioning a more stable U.S. relationship with China.

This contrasts with his first-term failure in dealing with Iran, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and other challenges where he armed himself only with good intentions and pious wishes before hitting walls of resistance. No wonder he longs to wash his hands of the troubled, ungrateful Middle East (which will not let him go that easily).

The president may be on steadier ground in Asia if his deft handling of the visit by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last month is any guide. Obama underlined U.S. support for Japan without getting bogged down in details of the nasty islands dispute between Tokyo and Beijing. And his warmth toward Abe was carefully calibrated to encourage the Japanese prime minister to shelve his own penchant for nationalistic rhetoric.

For pivots as well as people, timing is everything. This turn fortunately coincides with the return to office of Abe — a tough-minded, activist politician capable of restraint when it is pushed onto him — and the arrival of the new Chinese leadership under Xi Jinping that was showcased at the People’s National Congress in Beijing this last week. More to the point, the continuing development by China of its maritime power, missile forces, anti-satellite capabilities and cyberspying creates the need for a new U.S. strategy in the Pacific.

It is now accepted at the Pentagon that an attack by Beijing on Taiwan could not be successfully turned back by U.S. planes and ships. The dense deployment of missile batteries along the mainland Chinese coast has shifted the immediate balance of power, meaning that the United States will now depend on its ability to inflict massive retaliatory damage to deter China from crossing the Taiwan Strait. “We can no longer be a shield,” says a senior military planner. “We have to switch to being an effective spear.”

China’s growing ability to interfere with or destroy U.S. military satellites has also spurred the navy’s development of a still-embryonic war-fighting doctrine known as the Air-Sea Battle concept — essentially an attempt to replicate at sea the coordination between air and armor defenses that NATO employed in Western Europe during the Cold War.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s first-term diplomacy provides Obama with another opportunity. She skillfully converted the anxiety of China’s neighbors over that country’s assertiveness into a common front. Not long ago I heard Vietnam’s ambassador to Washington, Nguyen Quoc Cuong, publicly describe the U.S. military presence in the Pacific as “a stabilizing factor” in world politics. Live long enough and you will see and hear everything, I suppose.

But these pressure points — solidarity with Japan, friendship with Asian nations upset over China’s growing shadow, expanding deployment of U.S. missile defense systems around China and putting a few more ships and U.S. Marines in the Pacific — exert mostly psychological pressure on China at this point. They can be toned up, or down, depending on how conflictual the U.S.-China relationship becomes.

The Obama pivot has caught Beijing’s attention. Chinese intellectuals complain that Washington has made no attempt to explain the Air-Sea Battle concept to Beijing or to engage in a strategic dialogue about China’s “vital interests” in the South China Sea. The need for China to explain actions that have put its neighbors and Washington on edge — including its human rights abuses at home — is less evident to them.

That will have to change before there can be a meaningful leadership dialogue involving Xi and Obama. But this time at least, Obama has improved his chances for success by introducing a set of complications and potential punishments that the new generation of Chinese leaders may prefer to avoid.

Xi has emphasized to at least one high-level foreign visitor that his cohort came of age during the turmoil of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. They were either Red Guards persecuting their elders and siblings, victims of such persecution or in many cases both persecutor and victim at different phases of that vastly destructive period. They have witnessed the price of taking gigantic risks with stability.

Wisely managed, Obama’s pivot gives the president a chance to test the still uncertain but not foreclosed possibilities of change with and in China.

Jim Hoagland is a contributing editor to The Washington Post.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jamesobh James Ong

    US knows full well that Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands belong to China, but as China was won over by the Communists in 1949, it did the unthinkable, interfering in the affairs of China. It transferred administrative control of the islands to Japan, via the San Francisco Treaty in the 1970′s, intentionally infringing upon the territorial sovereignty of China and so, created a flashpoint in East China Sea.

    Diaoyu Islands then becomes a powder keg which can blow up into a war between China and Japan and with US’ interference, even lead to WW3.

    The many statements coming out of US and Japan,
    just goes to show that US and Japan are not bothered about Potsdam Proclaimation and Cairo Declaration, as a post-war international order, to effect the return of Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands to China. US and Japan are only concerned with containing China within the first island chain, as long as they have control of them. This is in effect, a subtle declaration of war on China.

    And the warnings by US to China to stay out of Diaoyu Islands is a challenge to China’s dignity and territorial sovereignty, and in fact, both US and Japan had thrown a gauntlet down, to see if China is daring enough to take up the fight over the islands.

    Though the world had gone through two world wars, US and Japan are still eager to provoke China to a war. Abe has in mind to bring to fruition, a “democratic diamond security,” which is basically an anti-China military alliance. His warmongering attitude is further strengthened with his attempts to influence and lure ASEAN nations to his side in the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands’ dispute with China.

    China has made UN representations over Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, circulated a White Paper, and even provided evidence that Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands are on its continental
    shelf. The representations and evidences have proven beyond doubt that China is the owner of Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands.