These are strange days in Asia. Countries resentful of US military presence on their territory are going out of their way to welcome American troops back. Hours before he landed in the Philippines on Monday, Barack Obama’s officials signed a far-reaching defence pact between the two countries. The agreement is valid for 10 years and allows the US access to Philippine military bases and facilities. It also allows for American and Filipino soldiers to train together.
Twenty-two years ago, at the end of 1991, the Philippines ordered the US to leave the Subic Bay naval base in an acrimonious chapter between the former colony and its master. In 2014, Manila--under immense military pressure from China--is more than anxious to secure any American military help.
A similar story is in play some 3,000km to the north-east of the Philippines.
Japan has had its own problems with the US over stationing of American troops in Okinawa. Okinawa is a prefecture--roughly a province--of Japan that is strategically very important to its defence. The prefecture has hundreds of islands and is located at a distance that makes it a convenient staging point for military operations in South and East China seas. The Okinawans don’t want US soldiers in their midst.
All this was happily forgotten during Obama’s visit to Japan during which another set of islands—the Senkaku Islands, claimed by China—were in focus. Just before the start of his Asian trip, Obama in written answers to the Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun said that “The policy of the United States is clear—the Senkaku Islands are administered by Japan and therefore fall within the scope of Article 5 of the US-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security. And we oppose any unilateral attempts to undermine Japan’s administration of these islands.”
These words, coming from a US President are music to Japanese ears. On Monday, Yuriko Koike, a Japanese parliamentarian and the country’s former national security adviser said in New Delhi that, “We (Japan) are very happy and hopeful about what Obama has said.”
Pivot not equal to containment
Japan and the Philippines are good examples of the complexities that defy American attempts to counter the rise of an increasingly aggressive China. The two countries are perhaps the most pro-American that can be found in East and Southeast Asia. And even they have had their set of problems with the US.
On the other extreme are countries that China can easily browbeat into submission or countries that are clearly pro-China (Cambodia is one example).
This makes any notion of “containment” of China difficult even conceptually.
Unlike the former Soviet Union that presented an ideological and military challenge to a culturally far more cohesive Western community, Asia is home to multi-lingual nations with large Chinese populations. Areas that have culturally no Chinese influence (such as Japan) or countries that worry about Chinese expansionism (Vietnam and India to give two examples) are geographically set so far apart that any united front against China seems implausible.
To top it all, the US cannot decide whether it wants to be friends with China or if it wants to contain it. It was symptomatic of this confusion that Obama said in Manila that, “Our goal is not to counter China. Our goal is not to contain China. Our goal is to make sure international rules and norms are respected and that includes in the area of international disputes.”
To Japan, the US offered the comfort of a bilateral defence deal; to the Philippines came the backing of support for UN arbitration over its maritime disputes with Beijing.
A bear there, a panda here
Obama’s visit to Asia and his soothing words may lower panic levels in East Asia after Russia snatched Crimea from Ukraine. The brazen seizure and the inability of the West to offer anything but words to Ukraine have further alarmed Asian countries about Chinese intentions. What if tomorrow China simply declares all islands/shoals/atolls in South and East China Sea as its own? No country will be able to rise and defend itself against Beijing. There is no collective security organization such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Asia.
Obama has thrown bits and pieces of advice but has offered nothing substantial. This may bring temporary respite but will not alter anything on the ground until American troops begin landing in these fearful countries. And that is not about to happen, overnight at least.
Global Roaming will run every Tuesday to take stock of international events and trends from a political and economic perspective.