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.”
Maintaining freedom of navigation, however, requires a robust fleet. With sequestration and announced defense budget cuts already set to shrink the U.S. military to pre-World War II levels, the question arises: How do you “pivot” to the maritime sea lanes of East and Southeast Asia without the funds to build ships? Britannia did not “rule the waves” for over a century on a shoestring budget.
At the June 2013 Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel pledged that the Navy will “forward-base sixty percent of its assets in the Pacific by 2020” and that the Air Force has “allocated sixty percent of its overseas based forces to the Asia-Pacific,” including tactical aircraft and bomber forces from the continental United States. While the focus is on the “sixty percent” pledge, the greater issue is the size of the pie. Sixty percent of a tiny tart does not equal sixty percent of a large pie. Others are further concerned that this pledge of transferring military assets to Asia was made before Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria and Putin’s provocations in Crimea caused a shift in focus back to the Middle East and Europe.
No less an authority than the commander of U.S. and U.N. forces in Korea, Army General Curtis Scaparrotti, has expressed public concern over how a shrinking defense budget pie could adversely impact military preparedness in the event of a crisis on the Korean peninsula. Speaking April 2 before the House Armed Services Committee, Scaparrotti said “If we were to reduce our armed force size based on the sequestration, we would probably be challenged in terms of maintaining a long-duration conflict or one that included stability operations for some time thereafter.”
Beijing’s reaction to the events in Crimea displayed barely veiled contempt for Washington and its allies. The People’s Daily, the voice of the Chinese Communist party, called the West’s reaction to events in the Ukraine the display of “a Cold War mentality” against Russia. Beijing’s official mouthpiece stated that “ridding the shackles of the Cold War mentality will reduce unnecessary confrontation thereby allowing a smoother transition in international relations.” Siding with Russia seems to point in the direction of the worst nightmare of classic Cold Warriors where China and Russia would be aligned in a formidable Eurasian bloc.
Beijing could also draw a dangerous lesson from the chopping up of Ukraine under the excuse of unifying ethnic Russian peoples. It has long advocated its own ethnic Chinese revanchism with regard to Taiwan. With Taiwanese experts estimating that the PLA has more than 1,600 missiles targeting the island, any calculation of a lack of American resolve could possibly encourage further adventurism in East Asia. A move against Taiwan would also further Beijing’s military goal of a blue water navy for implementing anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) against the U.S. Navy. The acquisition of naval facilities on Taiwan’s east coast would not only allow Beijing to break out of the first island chain into the western Pacific but also allow for the easy application of pressure on the Japanese and South Korean economies in the event of a future crisis by control of vital sea lanes.
Beijing has already ratcheted up tensions in the East China Sea for the past two years via increased patrols around the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu island chain. Obama cabinet officials have sought to calm Tokyo by repeatedly giving assurances that the Senkakus are included in the U.S.-Japan mutual defense treaty—although the fact the U.S. could become embroiled in a maritime conflict with China over some unpopulated rocks would certainly be news to most Americans.
Hagel traveled to Japan in early April to help pave the way for the presidential visit. He addressed U.S. and Japanese forces at Yokota Air Base, stating that he was there to assure allies of America's commitment to "our treaty obligations." He also announced the deployment to Japan of two additional missile defense ships to counter the North Korean threat.
The need to give such public assurances, however, is itself a manifestation of the extent of America’s Crimea perception problem in Asia. Some have even suggested that Secretary Hagel’s public comments will alleviate the necessity of President Obama having to make any similar pledges in Tokyo, Seoul and Manila. However, there is only one commander in chief and he is not the secretary of defense. In the final days of the 1952 presidential campaign it was soon-to-be President Eisenhower, and not his foreign policy advisors, who made the public pledge “I shall go to Korea” to end the Korean War. It was President Kennedy, not Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who stood at the newly constructed Berlin Wall in 1963 and said “Ich bin ein Berliner.” More than two decades later, in 1987, Ronald Reagan, not Caspar Weinberger, stood at the same wall and uttered the words “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Those troubled times called for a public manifestation of presidential resolve. President Obama’s trip to Asia to salvage the pivot will require no less.
Dennis P. Halpin is a former advisor for Asian issues on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He is currently a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS (Johns Hopkins) and a consultant to the Poblete Analysis Group (PAG).