CHELLANEY: Obama’s great Asian dawdle

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China, despite its bluster, is unlikely to wage open war against a determined, well-armed opponent for fear it may get a bloody nose, as happened in 1979 when it invaded Vietnam. Yet the possibility of an overt war resulting from mistake or miscalculation cannot be ruled out.

Even if no open war flares, Japan and several other Asian states already face China’s war by stealth. Through a clever strategy of furtive, incremental encroachments, China is actually undercutting the value of its opponents’ security relationships with Washington. Compounding this situation is Washington’s signal to its allies and partners that it is their own responsibility to safeguard territories that China covets.

Given Washington’s hands-off approach and Beijing’s creeping, covert warfare — designed to change facts on the ground slowly without having to fire a single shot — the relevance of U.S. security assurances to China’s neighbors risks becoming largely symbolic.

China’s aggressive stance thus poses difficult challenges for America’s allies and partners. For these states, the logical response to their security predicament would be to bolster defenses, build partnerships with each other to create a web of interlocking strategic relationships, and deepen their strategic engagement with Washington but without expecting the United States to come to their aid in a military contingency in which American interests are not directly at stake.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of “Water, Peace and War” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013).

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