Obama's Asia trip: A tired president sends a dangerous message
By Amb. John Bolton
Published April 29, 2014
Barack Obama’s Asia tour had the look and feel of a tired, uninterested president simply going through the motions.
Other than just showing up, Obama did precious little to advance our interests or demonstrate his oft-promised “pivot” to Asia. The trip was instead overshadowed by Ukraine’s continuing crisis and the collapse of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. And the visit’s real legacy, the spreading impression of U.S. lassitude and weakness, is profoundly dangerous.
In particular, Obama made no progress on Asia’s most pressing issue, Beijing’s assertive territorial claims in the East and South China Seas, thus missing a significant chance to deter future Chinese belligerence.
Obama repeated Washington’s standard view that (1) the U.S.-Japanese mutual defense treaty covers the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands (claimed by Japan, Taiwan and China, administered by Tokyo); and (2) sovereignty over the islands remains undecided. Even while reaffirming the bilateral treaty, Obama could not restrain himself from noting it was signed before his birth, and that he was thus not drawing a new “red line.” This sign of personal vanity and weakness was not lost on Beijing or other Asian capitals.
The Asia visit’s real legacy, the spreading impression of U.S. lassitude and weakness, is profoundly dangerous.
Obama may have somewhat calmed Tokyo’s nerves, but his comments nonetheless also encouraged Beijing.
Washington’s long-standing sovereignty fudge sufficed when interest in the islands was minimal, but today fudging only invites greater Chinese pressure. Indeed, the prevailing “strategic ambiguity” adds uncertainty and the risk of inadvertent incidents spinning rapidly out of control.
A clear-eyed, more-active U.S. role legitimizing Japan’s de facto control could avert increased tensions and thereby enhance stability.
Success eluded Obama even as he tried to forestall dangerous escalations through the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES), clearly timed as a visit “deliverable.” After agreeing to CUES, China reversed field, casting doubt on whether it will comply. In fact, CUES itself is a pale imitation of the landmark, 1972 U.S.-USSR Incidents at Sea Agreement, underlining just how precarious the East Asian maritime environment remains.
Even if standing pat on the Senkakus was defensible, Obama later created needless trouble for Japan and the difficult tripartite Washington-Tokyo-Seoul relationship by publicly criticizing Japan’s World War II sexual exploitation of Korean “comfort women.”
Japan is unquestionably culpable here, but Obama’s statement in Seoul was a thumb-in-the-eye to Tokyo that gladdened Beijing’s heart. And, more important substantively, the trip’s failure to advance the Trans-Pacific Partnership is a missed opportunity for all concerned.
The Philippines also have a Mutual Defense Treaty with America, unlike other countries contesting Beijing’s South China Sea territorial claims. Partially reversing the Philippines’ 1991 decision to eliminate U.S. bases, Obama’s visit provided the opportunity to announce agreement on a modest, semi-permanent U.S. troop presence. This is surely a step back to sanity, and one long in the works, but hardly changes the South China Sea’s existing balance of power. As with Japan, Obama essentially stood pat in the Philippines.
Precisely because the Middle East and Ukraine remained troublesome during the trip, they highlighted global perceptions of administration weakness and indecisiveness.
Obama invested enormous U.S. prestige, time and effort in the Israel-Palestinian “peace process,” only to see the Palestinian Authority move closer to Hamas than to Israel.
Whether last week’s deal proves more durable than prior “unity” pacts is unclear, but the smell of U.S. failure is unmistakable. That Obama’s gambit was inherently flawed, given the P.A.’s illegitimacy and incompetence, only makes it worse.
Similarly, the sense of foreboding about Ukraine was inescapable. Russia’s military annexation of Crimea, its continuing destabilization efforts, and NATO’s irresolute responses, are all too visible.
China is intensely scrutinizing America’s Ukraine policies because of the clear similarities to Beijing’s territorial claims, particularly against weak neighbors in the South China Sea.
The White House initially leaked that new sanctions against Russia would emerge on Friday, but after conferring with four European leaders, Obama retreated to a Monday announcement.
On Monday, Washington unveiled additional pin-bleep sanctions, primarily against Putin associates while Europe continued deliberating, hardly evidence of NATO unity.
In China, Western rhetoric about not recognizing Russian territorial gains acquired through military force rings hollow.
In 1932, Secretary of State Henry Stimson declared his “non-recognition” doctrine regarding Japanese aggression in China and subsequent annexations. Although politically symbolic, Stimson’s high-collared moralisms did nothing to deter further Japanese expansionism.
Years later, when President Roosevelt finally imposed sanctions that could actually inhibit Japan’s military, the increasing likelihood of war against the Nazis was apparent. Pearl Harbor followed, but one can ask if stronger U.S. Asia policies in the 1930’s might have caused a different result.
In December, 1937, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain of all people observed that, “It is always best and safest to count on nothing from the Americans but words.”
We can only hope that, although Chamberlain inconveniently wrote before President Obama was born, we have not once again reached that point.