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Alarm bells ringing in Asia

by Braham Chellaney

The deteriorating situation in Ukraine and rising tensions between Russia and the United States threaten to bury U.S. President Barack Obama’s floundering “pivot” toward Asia — the world’s most vibrant (but also possibly its most combustible) continent. Obama’s just-ended tour of Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines will do little to rescue the pivot or put his regional foreign policy on a sound footing.

In fact, Russia’s aggression in Ukraine is just the latest reason that the pivot — which has been rebranded as a “rebalancing” — has failed to gain traction.

A slew of other factors — including America’s foreign-policy preoccupation with the Muslim world, Obama’s reluctance to challenge an increasingly assertive China, declining U.S. defense outlays, and diminished U.S. leadership on the world stage — were already working against it.

The reality is that rising anxiety among Asian countries about China’s increasingly muscular foreign policy has presented the U.S. with an important opportunity to recapture its central role in the region by strengthening old alliances and building new partnerships. But the U.S. has largely squandered its chance, allowing China to continue to broaden its territorial claims.

Indeed, over the last two years, America’s Asian allies and partners have received three jarring wake-up calls, all of which have delivered the same clear message: the U.S. cannot be relied upon to manage China’s rise effectively.

The first such signal came in the form of Obama’s silence when China seized the disputed Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines in July 2012. The move — which established a model for China to annex other disputed territories — occurred despite a U.S.-brokered deal for a mutual withdrawal of Chinese and Philippine vessels from the area.

Obama’s apparent indifference to America’s commitment to the Philippines under the 1951 mutual-defense treaty, which it reaffirmed in 2011, encouraged China to seize the Second Thomas Shoal, which is also claimed by the Philippines.

America’s Asian allies received a second wake-up call when China unilaterally established an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) covering territories that it claims (but does not control) in the East China Sea — a dangerous new precedent in international relations. China then demanded that all aircraft transiting the zone — whether headed for Chinese airspace or not — submit flight plans in advance.

Instead of demonstrating its disapproval by postponing Vice President Joe Biden’s trip to Beijing, the U.S. government advised commercial airlines to respect China’s self-declared ADIZ.

Japan, by contrast, told its carriers to disregard China’s demand — an indication of the growing disconnect in U.S.-Japanese relations.

The third wake-up call comes from Ukraine. The U.S. has responded to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea by distancing itself from the “Budapest Memorandum,” the pact that U.S. President Bill Clinton signed in 1994 committing the U.S. to safeguard Ukraine’s territorial integrity in exchange for relinquishing its nuclear arsenal.

The first two wake-up calls highlighted the Obama administration’s unwillingness to do anything that could disrupt its close engagement with China, a country that is now central to U.S. interests.

The third was even more ominous: America’s own vital interests must be directly at stake for it to do what is necessary to uphold another country’s territorial integrity — even a country that it has pledged to protect.

The world is witnessing the triumph of brute power in the 21st century. Obama was quick to rule out any U.S. military response to Russia’s Crimea takeover. Likewise, as China has stepped up efforts to upend the regional status quo — both territorial and riparian — the U.S. has dithered, doing little to reassure its jittery Asian allies.

Instead, the U.S. has pursued a neutral course, which it hopes will enable it to avoid being dragged into a military confrontation over countries’ conflicting territorial claims. To this end, the U.S. has addressed its calls for restraint not only to China, but also to its own allies.

But America’s own restraint — whether in response to Russia’s forcible absorption of Crimea or to China’s creeping, covert warfare — has brought no benefits to its allies. In fact, its efforts to avoid confrontation at all costs could inadvertently spur game-changing — and potentially destabilizing — geopolitical developments.

Most important, America’s sanctions-driven policy toward Russia is likely to force the Kremlin to initiate its own pivot toward Asia — particularly toward energy-hungry, cash-rich China. At the same time, a showdown with Russia will compel the U.S. to court China more actively. In a new Cold War scenario, China would thus be the big winner, gaining a wide diplomatic berth to pursue its territorial ambitions.

As the U.S. propitiates China, countries like Japan, India, the Philippines and Vietnam are being forced to accept that they will have to contend with Chinese military incursions on their own. That’s why they are stepping up efforts to build credible military capabilities.

This trend could lead to the resurgence of militarily independent Asian powers that remain close strategic friends of the U.S. In this sense, they would be following in the footsteps of two of America’s closest allies — the United Kingdom and France — which have built formidable deterrent capacities, rather than entrust their security to the U.S. This would be a game-changing development for the entire world.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author. © 2014 Project Syndicate