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Washington mixes signals about aims toward China

The principal aim of U.S. President Barack Obama’s recent Asian tour obviously was to reconfirm his “rebalance policy” and “pivot to Asia.” At a joint press conference in Tokyo with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on April 24, Obama stated that the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty would apply to the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which are also claimed by China. This was good news not only for Japan but for the Philippines and other nations in the region having territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea.

At the same time, Washington tries to construct multifaceted bilateral ties with Beijing, often referred to as a “new-type relationship between big powers.”

This brings up a question of how such Sino-American ties would affect longtime alliances between the U.S. and some Asia-Pacific countries. If relations between the U.S. and China improve, the significance of those alliances would become smaller. Should China cease to be a military threat to the U.S., those alliances would lose their raison d’etre.

Obama’s rebalance policy became a pie in the sky when he failed to attend a summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Bali, Indonesia, and a meeting of leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Brunei last October. His absence enabled Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang to play more assertive roles at these meetings.

Before Obama left Washington for Asia, leading news media in the U.S. and Europe raised a question of whether he should exercise “pivot to Asia”while he was faced with urgent tasks in other parts of the world like Syria and Ukraine.

A fair and accurate assessment of Obama’s Asia tour is found in an article written by Gideon Rachman of The Financial Times in its April 21 issue. Under the title of “Obama’s Asia Policy Is Ambiguous,” he said that little significance will result from new military arrangements the U.S. has made in Asia as part of the pivot to Asia.

Although the U.S. has built a Marine Corps training camp in Darwin, Australia, and plans to send a few naval vessels to the Pacific region, he says, those actions are only within the bounds of the decreasing defense budget.

Rachman says Obama is doing the opposite of Theodore Roosevelt’s saying “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” He notes that Obama talks loudly about the pivot but carries a small stick.

The idea of building a new relationship of major powers between the U.S. and China was first brought up by Xi when he met with Obama in Palm Springs, California, in June 2013. Although Washington never revealed how Obama responded, a stenographic record released by the U.S. following another Obama-Xi meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, seems to indicate that a tacit agreement was made between them on the subject.

The record quoted Xi as saying that he and Obama agreed to continue to build a relationship between major powers on the basis of realistic cooperation and constructive adjustment of differences between China and the U.S., and that they made considerable progress in efforts related to climate change and expansion of military consultations aimed at preventing conflicts due to insufficient communication.

On March 4, Daniel R. Russel, U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, told the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs that the U.S. would oppose any unlawful or undiplomatic action for changing status quo or pushing territorial claims, presumably by China. But he called on all of U.S. allies to work to forge forward-looking and constructive relations with China, and added that he would like to make it clear that U.S. alliances in Northeast Asia and adjacent areas are not aimed at China.

His statement makes it hard to see which of the two issues Washington prioritizes: maintaining and strengthening its ties with the allies or building a major powers relationship with China?

When U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel met with Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera in Tokyo on April 6, he sided with Japan on the Senkaku Islands issue, supported the Abe administration’s move toward Japan’s exercising the right to collective self-defense by re-interpreting the Constitution and promised to deploy two more Aegis naval vessels with anti-ballistic missile capabilities in Japan by 2017.

A few days later, Hagel had heated discussions in Beijing with his Chinese counterpart, Chang Wanquan, concerning China’s claim over the Senkakus and its unilateral designation of the air defense identification zone over the East China Sea last November.

At a subsequent speech before the National Defense University, however, Hagel stressed the importance of building and expanding the new relationship of major powers, as advocated by Obama and Xi. Although he said the U.S. would seek to further deepen its ties with Japan, South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines, Australia and the other ASEAN countries, he made it clear that the U.S. cannot proceed in this attempt unless there is strengthening of its relations with China. The new relations of major powers, according to Hagel, comprise substantive and fruitful dialogue, practical cooperation in areas where the two countries’ interests overlap and efforts to adjust competition and different views through candid discussions.

Obama did not touch on the new bilateral relationship with China at his press conference in Tokyo with Abe. Nor is it clear how the Japanese government would react to such a concept. But a serious misunderstanding has already surfaced, as exemplified by an article titled “Sharing Power With China” written by professor Hugh White of the Australian National University for the March 19 issue of The New York Times.

Asserting that Asia today, like Europe in the past, “needs a new arrangement in which no country has a unique leading role, and all the great powers agree not to seek primacy over others,” White makes a surprise statement: “It would mean a lot of give and take. For example, America might accept that China will eventually assert control over Taiwan, and in return China could accept that it cannot make a territorial claim over the whole of South China Sea.” This is tantamount to favoring a collusion between the U.S. and China to determine the future of Taiwan and accepting a rule by great powers.

Meanwhile, the Japanese situation was totally ignored in a column written jointly by Harvard professor Joseph Nye and former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd for The Washington Post on April 19. Titled “How to navigate the East China Sea dispute between Japan and China,” the essay said that “the best way we can aim for is to revive the wisdom,” shared by Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka and his Chinese counterpart Zhou Enlai in 1972, to leave the territorial issue over the Senkakus for later generations. It went on to say, “One way of doing this, as some have suggested, might be to declare the islands a maritime ecological preserve dedicated to the larger good of the region.” This idea of making islands over which Japan has sovereignty neutral sides with Beijing, although neither of its authors seems to realize it.

While Obama’s latest Asian tour has been viewed favorably in Japan, an article that appeared in The Washington Post on April 17 on the eve of his departure was critical of him. It said Obama’s bid to focus U.S. attention on Asia “has failed to meet the lofty expectations he set three years ago. … The result … has been a loss of confidence among some U.S. allies about the administration’s commitment at a time of escalating regional tensions. Relations between Japan and South Korea are one of the lowest points since World War II, and China has provoked both with aggressive actions at sea …”

On March 4, Assistant Secretary of Defense Katrina McFarland said, “Right now, the pivot is being looked at again, because candidly it can’t happen.” Although she later retracted her remark, it stands to reason to regard the statement as expressing her true intention.

A close watch must be kept on the impact and outcome of Obama’s Asian tour. But one thing is undeniably clear: the U.S. is in a difficult position in many corners of the world and is no longer capable of pushing its diplomatic and defense policies as in the past.

Japan must wake up to realize that the new relationship of major powers between the U.S. and China hangs over its solid alliance with the U.S. even though that relationship’s true character has yet to be known.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the May issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, social and economic scenes.