WASHINGTON – The more assertive Beijing has become, the more reluctant U.S. President Barack Obama has been to take sides in Asian territorial disputes, although they center on a combative China’s efforts to change the territorial status quo with America’s strategic allies or partners. Washington’s feckless Asia policy has helped deepen the security dilemma of several Asian states on how to protect their territorial and economic rights against China’s power grab.
Washington has made it amply clear that despite its “pivot” toward Asia, it will not put American lives at risk to defend its allies’ territorial claims against Beijing or act in ways detrimental to its close engagement with China. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel even said in an Aug. 28 BBC interview that the U.S. does not look at China’s military buildup as a threat.
Indeed, there has been a course correction in the Obama administration’s “pivot” policy. After initially raising Asian expectations about a robust U.S. response to China’s assertiveness, Washington has tamped down the military aspects of its “pivot,” lest it puts it on the path of taking on Beijing. Instead it has been laying emphasis on the economic aspects.
Obama’s Asia policy has treaded a course of neutrality on territorial disputes between China and its neighbors, while seeking to reap the economic and strategic benefits of closer engagement with Asian states.
Washington, for example, is chary of getting drawn into Sino-Japanese territorial disputes, although Tokyo is its close ally and U.S. forward military deployments in Japan are a linchpin of America’s strategy to retain primacy in Asia. In fact, the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands that China claims are close to Okinawa, home to the largest U.S. military presence in Asia.
Similarly, even as China calculatedly badgers India along the Himalayan frontier, Washington has shied away from cautioning Beijing against any attempt to change the territorial status quo by force. In fact, on a host of Asian disputes, including China’s claim since 2006 to India’s Austria-size Arunachal Pradesh state, Washington has chosen not to antagonize Beijing by staying neutral.
Even in a case when China has forcibly changed the status quo — by taking effective control since last year of the Scarborough Shoal, located in the South China Sea within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone — the Obama team has done little more than counsel restraint and talks. With Chinese vessels this year present near the Second Thomas Shoal, the lesson the Philippines is learning that might remains right in international relations and that its security dependence on Washington is no check on the intruding colossus.
The paradox is that China’s rising assertiveness has helped the U.S. to return to Asia’s center stage, yet Obama is wary of taking sides in the territorial disputes. The only issue on which Washington has spoken up is freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. The China factor, which has allowed the U.S. to strengthen its existing military relationships and build new strategic partnerships in Asia, can remain useful for America only if it is seen by its allies and partners as a credible guarantor of stability and security in Asia. That is a function not of its military strength but of its political will.
To be sure, Washington has an interest in preventing the emergence of a Sino-centric Asia. But it has no interest in getting entangled in Asia’s territorial feuds. If it can, it would like to find a way to support its allies and partners in their disputes with China, but without alienating Beijing — a tough balancing act.
For example, the Obama administration has said the U.S. security treaty with Japan covers the Senkaku Islands because they “are under Japanese jurisdiction,” yet “we also stress that we don’t take a position on the sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands.” How reassured can Japan be with such doublespeak?
Washington indeed has advised Tokyo and Beijing repeatedly to sort out their dispute peacefully. Some U.S. analysts who have served in the government have urged Washington not to issue a “blank check” to an uncompromising Japan that refuses to negotiate with Beijing on the dispute.
If China were to employ military force in the dispute, would the U.S. take all necessary actions, including the use of its military capability, to repulse a Chinese action that was confined to the 7 square-km disputed real estate in the East China Sea? The Obama administration has simply said that despite China’s increasing intrusions into the Senkaku waters, “we do not envision that this current tension will rise to that level in any foreseeable scenario.”
Tokyo, skeptical that the U.S. will go to war with China to back Japan’s territorial rights, wants a clear U.S. defense guarantee. The Obama administration, however, has balked at Tokyo’s November 2012 proposal that the U.S.-Japan alliance’s defense guidelines be updated to specifically include the Senkakus.
America’s larger chariness has seemingly encouraged China to up the ante against several neighbors. For example, after gradually increasing the frequency of its incursions into Senkaku waters since September 2012, China is now focusing on increasing their duration. Similarly, China’s land incursions into India’s Ladakh region, after going up in frequency, are this year being staged intermittently for longer duration.
This pattern appears designed to pressure an opponent to cut a deal on Chinese terms, in keeping with Beijing’s stratagem on territorial disputes — what is ours is ours and what is yours is negotiable.
China, despite its bluster, is unlikely to wage open war against a determined, well-armed opponent for fear it may get a bloody nose, as happened in 1979 when it invaded Vietnam. Yet the possibility of an overt war resulting from mistake or miscalculation cannot be ruled out.
Even if no open war flares, Japan and several other Asian states already face China’s war by stealth. Through a clever strategy of furtive, incremental encroachments, China is actually undercutting the value of its opponents’ security relationships with Washington. Compounding this situation is Washington’s signal to its allies and partners that it is their own responsibility to safeguard territories that China covets.
Given Washington’s hands-off approach and Beijing’s creeping, covert warfare — designed to change facts on the ground slowly without having to fire a single shot — the relevance of U.S. security assurances to China’s neighbors risks becoming largely symbolic. In fact, the U.S. has sent out a contradictory message: It wants its allies to do more for their own security, yet it has scowled at Japan’s interest in acquiring offensive capability to deter aggression, asking Tokyo to consider the plan’s potential negative fallout in East Asia.
China’s aggressive stance thus poses difficult challenges for America’s allies and partners. For these states, the logical response to their security predicament would be to bolster defenses; build partnerships with each other to create a web of interlocking strategic relationships; and deepen their strategic engagement with Washington but without expecting the U.S. to come to their aid in a military contingency in which American interests are not at stake directly.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author, most recently, of “Water, Peace, and War” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013).