CHELLANEY: Obama’s Asia policy remains adrift

U.S. reluctance to face Chinese aggression makes for nervous Pacific allies

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President Obama’s just-concluded tour of Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines has done little to resurrect his stalled “pivot” to Asia. Indeed, the deteriorating situation in Ukraine and the Russian-U.S. proxy war for influence in that fragile, internally torn country threaten to unhinge the pivot completely.

In recent years, Washington has used growing Asian concerns over China’s increasing assertiveness and territorial creep to strengthen security and economic partnerships with Asian states, as underscored by Mr. Obama’s new, 10-year security deal with Manila on Monday.

Yet Mr. Obama’s pivot — unveiled in 2011 — has remained more rhetorical than real. The latest developments, by shifting U.S. foreign policy’s attention to Ukraine and other states around Russia’s periphery, have only made the pivot’s future more uncertain.

For the United States, the China factor can remain useful only if it is seen by its strategic allies and partners as a credible guarantor of stability and security in Asia. This is a function not of its military strength but of its political will.

In the past two years, however, the Obama administration has pursued a course correction on the pivot. It has been tamping down the military aspects of the pivot, placing emphasis instead on the economic elements, including the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. This has signaled a change in its approach that initially began overemphasizing the military component, putting Washington on the uncomfortable path of seeking to take on Beijing.

The administration’s course correction has also included name change: The pivot has been rebranded as “rebalancing.”

Although China’s rising assertiveness has helped the United States to return to Asia’s center stage, Mr. Obama remains wary of taking sides in the territorial disputes that China has ratcheted up against its neighbors — unless, of course, U.S. interests are directly at stake, as on the issue of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

Washington feels the territorial disputes between China and its neighbors leave it treacherously at risk of getting dragged into war over a few crags of rock in the East China Sea or South China Sea. Not wishing to confront a choice between confronting China and dumping an ally, it has addressed its call for restraint to not just Beijing, but also to its allies.

In truth, the administration has focused its attention on balancing America’s relationships in Asia and avoiding doing or saying anything that could raise China’s hackles.

Asian states that rely on the United States as their security guarantor were jolted by Mr. Obama’s inaction on the 2012 Chinese capture of the Scarborough Shoal, located within the Philippines‘ exclusive economic zone. This development occurred despite a U.S.-brokered deal under which both Beijing and Manila agreed to withdraw their vessels from the area.

Mr. Obama’s silence on the capture, despite the U.S. commitment to the Philippines under a mutual defense treaty, emboldened China to effectively seize a second Philippine-claimed shoal, the Second Thomas Shoal, also called the Ayungin Shoal, without attempting to evict the eight Philippine sailors living there.

Another jolt came when China established an air-defense identification zone that usurped international airspace over the East China Sea, extending to Japanese- and South Korean-controlled islands or rocks.

Washington refrained from postponing Vice President Joe Biden’s previously scheduled trip to Beijing or otherwise demonstrating its disapproval of the Chinese action beyond verbal statements, but advised U.S. commercial airlines to respect the zone. This response conflicted with Japan’s advice to its commercial airlines to ignore China’s demand that they file their flight plans through the zone in advance.

Now the administration has responded to Russia’s takeover of Crimea by distancing itself from the 1994 pact (known as the Budapest Memorandum) in which Washington pledged to uphold the territorial integrity of Ukraine in return for its abandonment of nuclear weapons.

These developments signal that the United States’ own vital interests must directly be at stake for it to militarily uphold the territorial integrity of an ally.

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