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Sayonara, Asian Allies

Obama’s damaging diffidence.

Mar 11, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 25 • By ROSS TERRILL
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China understands U.S. power but wonders, as many around the world do in hope or fear, about Obama’s will. France and the United Kingdom cannot push Obama to take a stance in the East China Sea, as they did in Libya. His own resolve is the key, and the Senkakus are unlikely to calm down unless Obama supports Japan with believable conviction. Secretary of State Kellogg in 1929 won the Nobel Peace Prize for wishful thinking on disarmament. Obama won it in 2009 for antiwar pledges. In the East China Sea, wishful thinking will not suffice to steady the U.S.-China-Japan entente.

Obama came to office vowing “fresh thinking and a change from the U.S. policy approach of the past eight years.” During 2009 he sought close rapport with Beijing, but he failed and sobered up. What Obama should emulate is the Reagan-Shultz architecture for Asia policy. In the 1970s President Nixon felt in urgent need of China’s support to cope with the Soviet Union. President Reagan saw less need. He and George Shultz believed that in China, as in the Soviet Union, communism was ultimately a passing phase. Shultz wanted an Asia policy, not just a China policy. He spoke of China’s important “regional role” (even more important today) but reserved the term “strategic” for Washington’s relationship with Japan. In fact, this policy brought the Reagan administration superior relations with the People’s Republic of China as well as with Taiwan and Japan. James Lilley, later ambassador in Beijing, called the period from 1983 to 1988 “the Golden Years in terms of China policy.” 

Many here in Australia hope Obama’s “pivot” might mean an Asia-wide policy bringing Japan, India, and Australia heavily into the picture, with China important but not the alpha and omega. They may be disappointed. Obama’s diffidence toward Abe seems a missed opportunity. Abe favors cooperation with China but wariness of China’s nationalism. Obama should draw the same distinction for the United States.

Obama wants Beijing’s “help” with North Korea and other matters, but the Chinese don’t think that way. The Chinese naturally only want to help themselves. But they understand strength, and if we grasp both points, we’ll secure equilibrium in East Asia. Beijing’s attitude is close to the one Lord Palmerston expressed in 1848: “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”

Ross Terrill of Harvard’s Center for Chinese Studies is visiting international senior fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra. He is the author of The New Chinese Empire, Mao, and The Australians. 

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