Obama’s Asian Pivot Stumbles

What if the Chinese call Washington’s bluff?

by , April 28, 2014

For those of us who wondered "whatever happened to the ‘Asian pivot?’" the answer is now in: it was the diplomatic-strategic equivalent of vaporware, i.e. it was never a Serious Thing in the first place.

For those not familiar with the foreign policy wonk-speak, the Asian Pivot was supposed to have been a major turning point in American foreign policy, a pivot away from the Middle East and Europe and toward the rising power of China. It didn’t work out that way.

First there was the Syrian diversion, in which the President threatened to bomb that country in response to a ginned-up "crisis" – provoked by a false-flag chemical weapons attack staged by Turkey in cooperation with Syria’s Islamist rebels. When that move fell flat on its face, the spotlight moved not to Asia but on to Europe – southeastern Europe, specifically, where an American-sponsored regime-change operation in Ukraine was in progress. The backfiring of this little adventure, ending in the Russian annexation of Crimea, has been an embarrassment for the administration, with an out-of-control "interim government" in Kiev stuffed with dubious characters and a new cold war with Russia dominating the headlines.

Now, finally, the Americans are getting around to their long-neglected "pivot" – but it looks like the President is tripping over himself in the attempt to carry it out. His four-nation tour of our Asian protectorates was supposed to reassure everyone that Uncle Sam has their backs: in the end, however, it wound up calling into question Washington’s willingness – and ability – to make good on its promises.

The credibility gap began to widen on Obama’s very first stop, Tokyo, where he declared that the US-Japanese security treaty covered Japan’s administration of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands – a sprinkling of atolls claimed by both Tokyo and Beijing.

But is the United States really going to go to war with China over a motley collection of uninhabited atolls, most of which are underwater much of the time?

The Japanese may be forgiven for doubting it. That’s the reason for their current national debate over repealing the provision in the postwar Japanese constitution that effectively prevents the country from having any kind of real military, including nuclear weapons. Washington is bluffing, and the Japanese know it.

Next stop – South Korea, where Obama immediately embroiled himself in a longstanding dispute over Korean "comfort women" forced into sex slavery by Japanese occupation troops during World War II. Chastising the Japanese, and following this up with bromides about looking to the future, his holier-than-thou riff satisfied no one: the Japanese were angered because he waited until after leaving Japan to make his remarks – a kind of underhanded way of staking out his position. The Koreans weren’t satisfied either, because anything less than unconditional support for the Korean position is insufficient. They’re still fighting World War II over there – not to mention reenacting the Korean war.

Standing next to South Korean President Park Guen-hye – daughter of former military dictator Park Chung-hee, who ruled the nation with an iron fist from 1963 to 1979 – Obama stood pensively by as South Korea’s first woman chief executive railed against Pyongyang’s "provocations" and threatened the North with unspecified retaliation if they detonated another nuclear device. (The North Koreans, in their response, outdid Ms. Park by a couple of country miles.) Reaffirming America’s "unwavering" commitment to the defense of the South, the President planted yet another tripwire on Asian soil.

In Kuala Lumpur, the President waded into the missing airliner controversy, which was roiled by former Prime Mahatir Mohamad’s remarks directed at Boeing, which he says should be held responsible for the disaster rather than Malaysian Airlines, the state-owned carrier. This is yet another China-related issue: many of the passengers were Chinese, and their families are directing their anger at the Malaysians, further exacerbating preexisting tensions over the Spratley islands question.

The capstone of this triumphal tour is slated for Monday, in the Philippines, where Benigno Aquino III and President Obama will hail the signing of a new military agreement that will allow for an increased US military presence. After being kicked out of the country in 1992, it looks like the Americans will once again take up their old post at Subic Bay.

While the President made a point in Kuala Lumpur of reasserting his intent to implement the Asian pivot and refocus attention on the region, Ukraine came up at every stop. In Tokyo he made a point of lecturing the Russians about their dependence on oil wealth, mocking Moscow for its underlying weakness in spite of Putin’s Pyrrhic victory in Crimea. The subtext, as the Chinese read it: don’t try this at home.

If we’re going to have a new cold war with Russia then it wouldn’t be complete without a Moscow-Beijing alliance, now would it? If we’re going to go retro, then why not go all the way? It’s plain to see where this little narrative is headed: first a series of learned disquisitions on the New Eurasianism in The New Republic and the New York Review of Books, followed by a John Kerry "town hall" with the Dalai Lama emceed by Miriam Elder. The contours of the emerging mythology are taking shape before our very eyes: the Eurasian "central powers" are a new Axis of Evil, a fresh threat to world peace and Anglo-American hegemony emanating from the top of the world.

Such myth-making has pecuniary as well as political uses. If the US is now engaged in a two-front cold war against the Eurasian central powers, then the strategic rationale for maintaining the ability to fight two major wars simultaneously – long the basis of our military posture – is revived and reinforced. Guess we can’t cut the military budget after all.

For all the folderol, the so-called Asian pivot is really just a feint: we have neither the ability nor does the Obama administration have the desire to confront China militarily. Coverage of Obama’s Asian trip generally emphasized the decision to "skip" Beijing, yet the really significant omission on Obama’s itinerary was Taiwan.

He didn’t dare show up there, the sore spot of Eastasia, site of yet another "frozen" conflict left over from the cold war era – and with good reason. No Chinese regime could give up its claim to the "renegade" province and survive popular wrath for long: the increasingly shaky gerontocracy in Beijing is acutely sensitive to the potential for nationalist backlash if they are seen as appeasing the West. For Obama to show up in Taiwan would’ve been a provocation too far.

Aside from Chinese intransigence on this issue, a stopover in Taipei would have complicated the administration’s anti-secessionist stance. After all, if the "Republic of China" can secede from the mainland, then why can’t Crimea get out from under Kiev’s heel? Yet the US is bound by law to defend Taiwan in case of a Chinese incursion – now there’s another cold war holdover that’s taken on new currency.

The overwhelming impression generated by Obama’s Asian sojourn is that the entire region is interlaced with numerous tripwires, any one of which could set off a major military conflict with the world’s most populous country. Underlying this sense of impending danger is the suspicion of US impotence, highlighted by the hollowness of Obama’s threat to go to war with Beijing over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islets.

We have no more business deciding what goes on in the South China Sea than Beijing has in the Gulf of Mexico. To add hypocrisy to hubris: while we’re backing the Japanese in their claim to Senkaku/Diaoyu, Washington still refuses to even consider getting out of Okinawa and finally ending the US occupation.

Left to themselves, the human dinosaurs who preside over one of the last ruling Communist parties in the world will trod the road to extinction. However, Washington never leaves anyone to themselves: the US policy of "containment," i.e. military encirclement, allows Mao’s heirs to reinvent themselves as nationalist defenders of the homeland against US aggression. Leave it to US policymakers to breathe new life into an authoritarian one-party system previously pronounced ideologically dead.

NOTES IN THE MARGIN

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You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.

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