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April is turning out to be a month of the U.S. trying to calm nerves in Asia. The president, members of Congress and other officials are visiting everywhere from Seoul to Kuala Lumpur at almost an unprecedented rate. Many, especially liberal states, are looking for signs of American resolve on these visits in light of the administration’s hesitant response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and China’s continued regional aggression. However, signs of American indecisiveness in the face of increasing global instability will ruin any attempts at rhetorical reassurance.
Mr. Obama’s vacillating response to the Syrian civil war, China’s behavior and Ukraine instill a sense of pessimism. With a weak West, revisionist, authoritarian nations have successfully kept democracies off balance and violated international norms. Regardless of whether the Russian-Ukrainian crisis will repeat itself in Asia, instability is spreading. Combating both that reality and the fear of it may well prove to be the next great American challenge.
Mr. Obama has his work cut out for him in Asia, where tensions between China, Japan and South Korea are heating up. His secretary of defense was just lectured by China’s defense minister, who told the Americans to restrain their ally, Japan, as though Tokyo were a wayward child. Vice President Joe Biden‘s December visit to northeast Asia painted a picture of the U.S. as weak and less than candid. He told officials in Tokyo one thing and those in Beijing and Seoul another, and was unwilling to challenge the Chinese over their controversial air defense zone.
Despite last month’s brief meeting between the leaders of Japan and South Korea, the two still barely speak to each other and have a mutual, monumental trust deficit. According to Japanese sources, the president will “reaffirm” the importance of the U.S.-Japan relations during his visit to Tokyo late this month, but little concrete is expected. If Mr. Obama attempts to pander to all sides during the visit, as his vice president did, his influence will be even further eroded.
Yet Mr. Obama will not be the only American heard this month. Next week, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor will lead a Congressional delegation of both Republicans and Democrats to Japan, South Korea and China. Washington is already thinking about 2016 and the Republicans on the trip will undoubtedly remind both friends and competitors that Mr. Obama’s preferred policy of ignoring Chinese provocations will not always be U.S. policy. A recent series of Congressional hearings on the real changes of the so-called “rebalance” to Asia, spearheaded by Reps. Randy Forbes and Colleen Hanabusa, underscored the growing bipartisan legislative concern about American policy in Asia.
A different vision for the future is what Manila wants to hear as well. China recently attempted to prevent the resupply of Philippines’ armed forces stationed on a disputed shoal in the South China Sea. It is but one example of creeping Chinese coerciveness that so unnerves the region. The Chinese defense minister also stridently asserted that Beijing will never compromise on disputed territory, raising fears that words will increasingly become assertive action.
Washington often gets frustrated with the amount of reassurance its Asian allies and partners seem to need, but it also must recognize the sources of such concern. Chinese President Xi Jinping has increased pressure on Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, and other nations in an effort to aggressively propel Chinese interests. Although the actions so far fall short of Vladimir Putin’s brazen takeover, they are shifting the perceived balance of power in Asia. It is this shift that the Obama Administration has so far failed to counter.
Sending a few more navy ships or U.S. Marines to Asia does not cohere into a larger strategy. Nor does the slowdown in finalizing the Trans-Pacific Partnership calm the fears of our regional allies. U.S. budget cuts to the military while Chinese military spending increases is yet another reason so many in Asia fear that China’s capabilities will, in a decade or two, match or even exceed America’s.
While it’s true the Obama administration has been engaging with Asia for the past five years, it’s the quality of that engagement that is now being questioned. Washington points to enhanced relations with Southeast Asia and visions of greater U.S.-Japan cooperation as its accomplishments. One must ask, then, why serious doubts still persist among Asian observers.
The issue is not whether China today is planning on Putin-style tactics to secure its interests, but whether Beijing is setting the table to do so in the future. Capitals across Asia this month will hear some very competing views on America’s plans to maintain its influence. Both American sides, however, will ultimately have to back up words with acts, or risk further loss of confidence in the U.S.’s role in preserving peace in Asia.
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