One step forward, two steps back: Obama’s Pivot to Asia exposed

USS Mustin Patrols the South China Sea by US Pacific Command @flickr
USS Mustin Patrols the South China Sea by US Pacific Command @flickr

On a small island where you’d find signs indicating Wall Street and the intersection of Broadway and 42nd Street, you might assume you’re in Manhattan, but you’d be wrong. In fact, those are the street signs on Tinian Island in the Northern Mariana Islands, a United States territory and key military stronghold during World War II. On Tinian, U.S. military personnel took advantage of the island’s Manhattan-like size and shape to bring a piece of home to the middle of the Pacific, building what was the largest airbase in the world at the time, as well as the point from where the two nuclear-armed B-29’s took off for Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

You’d also be mistaken if you thought that, with China ramping up its naval military power and its illegal incursions into the exclusive economic zones of neighboring nations in the South China Sea, the U.S would be planning to flex its muscles at Beijing. Lamentably, the hopelessly optimistic Obama administration has been slow in discerning that neither its diplomatic overtures nor its cooperative economic policies are turning the tide. Indeed, it appears that it’s time to return to Tinian, and the unwavering American military commitments it symbolizes.

The fickle superpower

For a while, it seemed that Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” was off to a good start. Pursuing the George W. Bush-era TPP brought together the biggest economies in Southeast Asia into one US-led alliance that could act as a powerful economic buffer for China’s imperial ambitions. Malaysia, once a staunch anti-Western country, emerged as an influential pro-American voice in the region. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Najib Razak, the country joined the US-led war on terror through a plethora of joint security agreements, ranging from information sharing agreements and cybercrime tackling squads, to setting up a regional data center to combat the spread of Islamic extremist messages and propaganda. The masterstroke, however, came this November, when ASEAN, at Malaysia’s behest, signed a wide-reaching strategic partnership with the US. The agreement is a snub to China’s illegal land reclamations in the region and is proof that ASEAN envisions a future where Washington plays the first fiddle.

So when the US trumpeted that the USS Lassen would be doing a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) in waters illegally claimed by China, it seemed that the White House had finally decided to test Beijing’s willingness to defend its positions.

As the world watched the lumbering 500-foot long destroyer closing in on the disputed Subi reef, defying the two military ships the Chinese navy sent to cut off its path, some felt reassured that Washington will not back down on its regional Southeast Asian allies. “By using a guided-missile destroyer, rather than smaller vessels…they are sending a strong message,” said Ian Storey, a South China Sea expert at Singapore’s Institute of South East Asian Studies.

However, after the ruckus died down it became painfully obvious that the FONOP, instead of reaffirming America’s decade-long commitment to patrol the high seas and protect trade lanes at all costs, was actually a respectful acknowledgement of China’s claims over the Subi reef. By informing Beijing in advance of its intention to skirt the waters of the disputed area, and by transiting the said area without engaging in the maritime military exercises allowed in international waters (such as launching helicopters, carrying out arms exercises), Washington treated the reef as China’s territorial waters. As one analyst put it, “The Obama administration appeared to grant China maritime rights that it lacks under international law and has never even claimed.”

What this means is that the Lassen’s transit served the interests of a foreign state, one that is by no means an ally of the United States – a matter grave enough that it could even be seen as an act of treason. What’s more, the failed FONOP sent out a grim message to our budding alliances with ASEAN nations: the Obama White House would never offer them the protection they so desperately need from China.

‘Tis the season to be nasty

China’s encroachment on its South China Sea neighbors has been decades in the making, spanning at least four decades of Chinese disputes over maritime rights, territorial claims, and resources. That China went relatively unchallenged for years may explain why, in the past decade, the pattern of aggression has increased. That China unilaterally builds airfields on disputed islands, as is the case in the Spratly Islands, is the logical progression of the unchecked Chinese usurpation of authority in the region. That China adheres to territorial claims determined solely by its own flawed understanding and enforcement of maritime law, and fires when it deems any incursion has warranted a response, is the consistent evidence that Beijing is relying on brunt force to get its point across. It works in the Paracel Islands, it works in the Philippines, and frankly, it works on the United States too.

Nations like Malaysia or Vietnam, which had started to warm up to the US as China’s South China Sea policies were threatening their national interest, could start questioning the logic of their strategic shift unless a more committed president takes charge in 2016. Malaysia’s emerging leadership in the ASEAN community reflects an intentional distance between its interests and those of Beijing’s, and banks its future on the West. Meanwhile, other ASEAN nations, including Indonesia and the Philippines, expect U.S. assistance, if not outright intervention, as China muscles forward wielding its military power to enforce its objectives.

Our Southeast Asian allies’ appeals to America deserve more than this administration’s ineptitude, its platitudes and business as usual shrugs. This is not the powerful history that Tinian represents, nor a United States’ whose role it is to act as the guardian of peace in the Pacific.