Reassuring Asia Through the Lens of Ukraine

Roundup 2014

The United States welcomes China’s peaceful rise: President Barack Obama in Manila

At every stop on President Barack Obama’s recent trip to Asia, leaders were encouraged by America’s on-going ‘pivot’ towards Asia, while journalists kept pulling him back to the crisis in Ukraine. There is much more to it than meets the eye as far as US policy ‘re-balance’ is concerned. Attention of Washington has constantly shifted from strategic to urgent, in the Middle East, North Africa, Europe or most recently Africa and the abduction of school girls in Nigeria.

The concern of the West about Russia’s efforts to dominate if not destabilise Ukraine and Asia’s concern about an increasingly assertive China represent flip sides of the same coin. They give rise to some interrelated questions. For example, can complex challenges that transcend borders be resolved through diplomatic means without becoming full blown regional crises?

In a world of intersecting interests and interdependent economies, how willing are nations, particularly the United States, to take effective joint action to confront those who fail to abide by widely held international norms, and shoulder the attendant costs and risks in the process?

And will the so-called rising powers, which now have the influence to help define international norms and ostensibly the responsibility to uphold them, choose to be part of the solution, part of the problem or simply stay on the sidelines?

Reinforcing Existing Policy

President Obama reiterated at the start of the trip, during his first stop in Tokyo, “The United States is and always will be a Pacific nation.” His long-planned travel had been postponed last year due to a domestic political fight over the government budget. Its primary purpose was to reinforce existing policy, not to create new headlines.

The president was warmly welcomed. The itinerary – stops in Tokyo, Seoul, Kuala Lumpur and Manila – involved three state visits. It combined history

– Obama was the first sitting US leader to visit Malaysia in nearly half a century – and tragedy – the two countries were dealing with the on-going crises – the mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines MH370 and the sinking of the ferry MV Sewol – and the other two recovering from major disasters.

The US re-balance has been misrepresented as an either/or choice. If Asia policy is on the front pages, it is presumed that less attention is paid to Europe or the Middle East. The US is a global power with vital interests in all areas of the globe, and can do more than one thing at a time. As the President said in Seoul, the US does not have the ‘luxury of choosing just one problem at a time.’

China’s Role

China was not part of the itinerary but was a sub-text to virtually all of the discussions Obama had with his regional counterparts. In Tokyo, he reiterated that the US defence commitment to Japan includes the Senkaku (or alternatively the Diaoyu) Islands, while again withholding judgement regarding the question of final sovereignty. The US has said this many times, but never before as a presidential statement.

Obama did not draw any new red lines in the region, suggesting that regardless of ‘this piece of land or this rock,’ the United States opposed any change in the status quo through unilateral action. Beijing tested these words immediately after Obama’s visit by moving drilling equipment into contested waters off the coast of Vietnam.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe emphasised Japan’s support within the G7 to oppose Russian intimidation of Ukraine. He spoke of Japan’s commitment to the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, creating a 21st century economic zone which promotes not just trade, but human rights, the rule of law and democracy, conditions that rule out China’s participation.

There was no breakthrough in Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations between the US and Japan, one of the hoped-for deliverables of Obama’s trip. The pivot and the TPP are among recent US proposals that feed fears in Beijing that the American regional policy is not about engaging China, but containing it.

Peace in the Korean Peninsula

In Seoul, both President Obama and President Park Geun-hye stressed the important role China needs to play in mitigating Pyongyang’s periodic provocative impulses. He reiterated that if North Korea is serious about being a ‘normal country’ on good terms with the rest of the world, it must change its behaviour.

In reality, North Korea has no intention of meeting the conditions advanced within the Six-Party Process, particularly giving up its nuclear weapons. The government of Kim Jong-Un survives through its family-run enterprises, most of them illegal, and Chinese largesse. Beijing sustains the status quo, fearing the chaos that would follow regime collapse, even as Pyongyang increasingly spurns its advice.

The West’s response to Russia’s destabilisation of Ukraine has been to gradually impose costs on Moscow in the hope of changing its ‘calculus.’ While Iran is an example of the success of a sanctions-driven strategy, North Korea is the poster child of its limitations.

President Park spoke of South Korea’s on-going efforts to promote conditions for an eventual peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula. She said rightly that ‘barriers built due to conflict, distrust, social and cultural differences eventually collapse.’ She is right, although Russian President Vladimir Putin has a similar proposition in Ukraine, with a very different vision of the future.

Promoting Global Peace and Security

In Kuala Lumpur, US and Malaysia announced a new comprehensive partnership as well as an enhanced commitment to the Proliferation Security Initiative. Prime Minister Najib Razak vowed to see regional countries take a ‘greater role in promoting global peace and security,’ a step Washington undoubtedly welcomes. As the US attempts to reassure nations regarding its commitment to international norms, the question lingers whether other nations will place key interests at risk to uphold norms, whether it regards North Korea and its abysmal human rights record; China and its commitment to peaceful resolution of disputes; or Russia’s use of coercion to achieve territorial gains.

“The US welcomes China’s peaceful rise,” President Obama reiterated in Manila. “Our goal is not to contain China” but to seek constructive relations based on principles such as fair trade, freedom of navigation and the peaceful resolution of disagreements.” China undoubtedly views the US strategy somewhat differently.

Enhanced US Military Presence

The Philippines and the US extended a defence cooperation agreement to enable a rotating US military presence at Filipino bases for the first time in decades. A particular point of emphasis will be emergency disaster relief operations. The US also indicated its support for Filipino efforts to pursue international arbitration to resolve its territorial disputes.

It expressed continued support for an ASEAN initiative to develop a code of conduct regarding actions in and around contested areas. Clearly, China was paying close attention and sent the message with its bold commercial and military show of force near the Paracel Islands.

China views such disputes as bilateral issues and has steadfastly resisted efforts to place them in an international or regional context.

China’s aggressive stance underscores the importance of Obama’s trip, the complex dynamics behind Washington’s pivot to Asia and the global diplomatic stakes of a variety of challenges, from Syria and Ukraine to the 38th Parallel and South China Sea.

Obama’s trip succeeded in reinforcing America’s commitment to the Asia-Pacific region, but China’s assertive posturing gives the US’ policy ‘re-balance’ a meaning. It is all interconnected. There is no longer a divide between domestic and foreign, and between the regional and global.

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Diplomatist Magazine was launched in October of 1996 as the signature magazine of L.B. Associates (Pvt) Ltd, a contract publishing house based in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, India, the National Capital.