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The Asian Pivot: Does America Still Rule the Waves?

9:37 AM, Apr 16, 2014 • By DENNIS P. HALPIN
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President Obama is about to undertake a fence-mending mission to America’s Asian allies in Tokyo, Seoul, and Manila. The U.S. “pivot” to Asia is coming under renewed scrutiny following Beijing’s announcement of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) for the East China Sea in November, Pyongyang’s recent firing of two midrange missiles into waters near Japan and South Korea, and regional whispers questioning American resolve.

The situation calls to mind the scene in Casablanca where a man emerges from the shadows as the Vichy French police, under the watchful eye of the Nazis, haul a hapless customer out of Rick’s casino. The man notes: “When they come to get me, Rick, I hope you’ll be more of a help.” Rick’s cynical reply: “I stick my neck out for nobody.” The man in question could well be these Asian allies as they watch President Obama first back away from his “red line” in Syria and now admonish an undeterred Vladimir Putin over his aggression against Ukraine.

The seriousness of the U.S. pivot thus remains a matter of debate—and some doubt—from Tokyo down to Manila. Even before Crimea, Philippine President Benigno Aquino raised alarm bells in February, cautioning the West about China’s maritime ambitions. He went so far as to compare Beijing’s bullying of the Philippines in the South China Sea to Hitler’s demands on Czechoslovakia over the Sudetenland. (Of course he failed to note that the Philippine Senate’s decision not to renew the 1947 Military Bases Agreement with the United States in 1991 had led to the withdrawal of U.S. forces. It seems likely that Beijing would be more cautious in its aggressive approach toward Manila in the South China Sea if a U.S. fleet was still in port at Subic Bay.)

As the Ukrainian drama was unfolding, a smaller cat-and-mouse game was being played by Beijing with America’s Philippine ally. Manila officially protested on March 11—just as Russia tightened its grip on Crimea—after Chinese coast guard vessels blocked the resupply of a small group of eight Filipino soldiers guarding the disputed Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea. In a replay of the Cold War’s Berlin airlift, Manila then air-dropped food and water to the beleaguered soldiers. More recently, in late March, a Philippines military vessel outmaneuvered the Chinese Coast Guard blockade and directly resupplied the stranded troops.

In a highly irate article, China’s state-controlled and highly nationalistic Global Times stated that the “small and weak” Philippines had become the vanguard force in “provoking China.” It added that Chinese forces could remove the Filipino soldiers at any time “like taking thieves away.” Beijing seems to be reading the Crimean tea leaves.

Even before Aquino raised eyebrows with his analogy, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had done the same with one of his own at the annual Davos World Economic Forum in January. There he called relations between Japan and China “a similar situation” to the one that prevailed between Britain and Germany on the eve of the First World War. He pointed out that robust trade in both cases had not overcome strategic rivalry (nor had the fact that the Kaiser and the British monarch were first cousins.) While China’s foreign minister issued a stinging rebuke to Abe’s remarks, none can deny that tensions over maritime disputes in the East China and South China Seas, as well as in the Yellow (West) Sea adjacent to the two Koreas, have dramatically escalated in recent years. Indeed North Koreas’s torpedoing of the South Korean naval vessel, the Cheonan, in 2010 actually met the classic definition for an act of war.

Thus the pivot to Asia must be viewed, in large part, as a naval pivot. This pivot is aimed at preserving the Pax America secured by the U.S. Navy in the western Pacific, Taiwan Strait, Yellow Sea, and the East and South China Seas at the conclusion of the Second World War followed shortly by the Korean War. This Pax Americana, especially in the decades following the end of the Vietnam War, allowed the rapid expansion of Pacific commerce—surpassing Atlantic commerce—and the fueling of the economic engines of Japan, the Asian dragons, and China, which contributed immeasurably to global prosperity. As former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton famously noted, in ruffling Chinese feathers at the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) meeting in Hanoi in 2010, “The United States has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons and respect for international law in the South China Sea.”

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