Friday, November 28, 2014

Alarm Bells in Asia

NEW DELHI – The deteriorating situation in Ukraine and rising tensions between Russia and the United States threaten to bury US President Barack Obama’s floundering “pivot” toward Asia – the world’s most vibrant (but also possibly its most combustible) continent. Obama’s tour of Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines will do little to rescue the pivot or put his regional foreign policy on a sound footing.

In fact, Russia’s aggression in Ukraine is just the latest reason that the pivot – which has been rebranded as a “rebalancing” – has failed to gain traction. A slew of other factors – including America’s foreign-policy preoccupation with the Muslim world, Obama’s reluctance to challenge an increasingly assertive China, declining US defense outlays, and diminished US leadership on the world stage – were already working against it.

The reality is that rising anxiety among Asian countries about China’s increasingly muscular foreign policy has presented the US with an important opportunity to recapture its central role in the region by strengthening old alliances and building new partnerships. But the US has largely squandered its chance, allowing China to continue to broaden its territorial claims.

Indeed, over the last two years, America’s Asian allies and partners have received three jarring wake-up calls, all of which have delivered the same clear message: the US cannot be relied upon to manage China’s rise effectively.

The first such signal came in the form of Obama’s silence when China seized the disputed Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines in July 2012. The move – which established a model for China to annex other disputed territories – occurred despite a US-brokered deal for a mutual withdrawal of Chinese and Philippine vessels from the area. Obama’s apparent indifference to America’s commitment to the Philippines under the 1951 mutual-defense treaty, which it reaffirmed in 2011, encouraged China to seize the Second Thomas Shoal, which is also claimed by the Philippines.

America’s Asian allies received a second wake-up call when China unilaterally established an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) covering territories that it claims (but does not control) in the East China Sea – a dangerous new precedent in international relations. China then demanded that all aircraft transiting the zone – whether headed for Chinese airspace or not – submit flight plans in advance.

Instead of demonstrating its disapproval by postponing Vice President Joe Biden’s trip to Beijing, the US government advised commercial airlines to respect China’s self-declared ADIZ. Japan, by contrast, told its carriers to disregard China’s demand – an indication of the growing disconnect in US-Japanese relations.

The third wake-up call comes from Ukraine. The US has responded to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea by distancing itself from the “Budapest Memorandum,” the pact that US President Bill Clinton signed in 1994 committing the US to safeguard Ukraine’s territorial integrity in exchange for relinquishing its nuclear arsenal.

The first two wake-up calls highlighted the Obama administration’s unwillingness to do anything that could disrupt its close engagement with China, a country that is now central to US interests. The third was even more ominous: America’s own vital interests must be directly at stake for it to do what is necessary to uphold another country’s territorial integrity – even a country that it has pledged to protect.

The world is witnessing the triumph of brute power in the twenty-first century. Obama was quick to rule out any US military response to Russia’s Crimea takeover. Likewise, as China has stepped up efforts to upend the regional status quo – both territorial and riparian – the US has dithered, doing little to reassure its jittery Asian allies.

Instead, the US has pursued a neutral course, which it hopes will enable it to avoid being dragged into a military confrontation over countries’ conflicting territorial claims. To this end, the US has addressed its calls for restraint not only to China, but also to its own allies.

But America’s own restraint – whether in response to Russia’s forcible absorption of Crimea or to China’s creeping, covert warfare – has brought no benefits to its allies. In fact, its efforts to avoid confrontation at all costs could inadvertently spur game-changing – and potentially destabilizing – geopolitical developments.

Most important, America’s sanctions-driven policy toward Russia is likely to force the Kremlin to initiate its own pivot toward Asia – particularly toward energy-hungry, cash-rich China. At the same time, a showdown with Russia will compel the US to court China more actively. In a new Cold War scenario, China would thus be the big winner, gaining a wide diplomatic berth to pursue its territorial ambitions.

While the US propitiates China, countries like Japan, India, the Philippines, and Vietnam are being forced to accept that they will have to contend with Chinese military incursions on their own. That is why they are stepping up efforts to build credible military capabilities.

This trend could lead to the resurgence of militarily independent Asian powers that remain close strategic friends of the US. In this sense, they would be following in the footsteps of two of America’s closest allies – the United Kingdom and France – which have built formidable deterrent capacities, rather than entrust their security to the US. This would be a game-changing development for Asia, the US, and the entire world.

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    1. CommentedPaul Jefferson

      This excellent article would be more complete if it acknowledged the stupidity and stubbornness of the leaders of South Korea and Japan.

      Why don't Park Geun-hye and Shinzo Abe make a sincere effort to reconcile their differences? Obviously, if South Korea and Japan would stop quarreling and instead become close allies, they could resist China far more effectively, with or without help from the USA.

    2. CommentedS.Mahmud Ali

      Dr Chellany suggests that Asia's biggest problem is America's failure to constrain China's growing power, as though the USA had this choice as a realistic policy option and elected to eschew that course. For one thing, US formal policy, moving additional elements of its national military establishment so that around 60% of its lethal capabilities were deployed to the Asia-Pacific in the next few years, shoring up its post-1945 allies and alliances, building strategic partnerships with countries such as Dr Chellany's own India as a countervailing presence confronting China, and repeatedly warning Beijing against acting in support of its long-proclaimed maritime/ territorial claims - suggest Washington is doing all it can short of launching an official containment strategy against China. Anything less vigorous than such an ultimately foolish and ineffective stance would fail to satisfay Mr Chellany and his sympathisers, but realism demands greater caution than Dr Chellany appears to recommend.

      There is no guarantee that Washington's thoughtful pivot and diplomatic-economic endeavours will prevent conflict in Asia. However, pursuing Dr Chellany's absolutist line on containing China is almost certain to trigger it. This may satisfy nationalistic hubris of armchair strategists with no comprehension of the realities of combat, but it is not assured to defend or advance the long-term interests of any society, Asian or otherwise.

    3. CommentedAjit Kapoor

      "Alarm Bells in Asia" is an exercise in academia. You cannot question it but it offers no solution to the situation. While Mr. Chellaney fails to define the problem he is flailing around that US is making a big mistake. When we go to War , and that what he wants US to do in Syria, Russia, or even China the world calls us imperialists; when we do not, we are called a falling empire. Since when its the US job to be the world's policeman or it protector? Countries evolve and as new ones gain economic power they exercise it in many gangster-like ways. Right now China and Russia are clamoring for world respect and like inexperienced children they rely on thuggish bully behavior. But they will settle down. US did the same for many years. The strength of US should be measured not by interpreting its patience as a sign of weakness but of a maturing nation with self restraint an dignity quite sure of itself and nothing to prove to others.

    4. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

      Mr. Brahma Chellaney rings the "alarm bells", as if Asia were in crisis. No doubt the conflict in Ukraine has led to "rising tensions between Russia and the United States", but does it "threaten to bury US President Barack Obama’s floundering “pivot” toward Asia"?
      When Hillary Clinton became Secretary of State in 2009, her first trip abroad was to Asia. Does Mr. Chellaney realise how much had changed since then? The Arab Uprising in 2011, which saw the demise of authoritarian regimes in Egypt and Libya. The unabated civil war in Syria has sparked sectarian violence in the region, which sees a proxy war fought between the Shia Iran and the Sunni Saudi Arabia.
      Mr. Chellaney laments "Obama’s reluctance to challenge an increasingly assertive China". Indeed many saw a "diminished US leadership on the world stage" as Obama refrained from launching a military action against Syria last September. In retrospect Obama's passiveness was a good decision! Was it not?
      With economic growth comes nationalism. Asia's Far East is an economic powerhouse. China has been flexing its muscles there in recent years, antagonising a revisionist Japan under Shinzo Abe, who also ruffles South Korea's feathers.
      Mr. Chellaney believes, America's pivot to Asia should act as a deterrent to China's assertive foreign policy and "recapture its central role in the region by strengthening old alliances and building new partnerships". The territorial disputes among the littoral countries of the South China Sea have brought the US to a dilemma. America's military budget is overstretched and has limited resources to help the Philippines strengthen its defence forces. Should China invade the Philippines, the US would unlikely come to its rescue. On the other hand the US is obligated to defend Japan, as both countries had signed The Mutual Defense Assistance Agreement in March 1954.
      It is untrue that "the US propitiates China", by forcing "Japan, India, the Philippines, and Vietnam accept that they will have to contend with Chinese military incursions on their own". It's unclear whether China would want to alienate the whole world by being an aggressor and expansionist. Nevertheless, we have to see world affairs through Obama's lens. He doesn't want the US to be the global policeman. He sees how detrimental the two wars of his predecessor, George W. Bush had been to the country's economy and his people are war-weary.

    5. Commentedm r

      Prof. Chellaney's analysis, as usual, is incisive. The whole article could be just summed up by saying watch out- US of A, living on all things borrowed or stolen is now mercifully a spent force while telling her to hurry up a bit as it falls off the pedestal.

    6. CommentedKarthik Tadepalli

      It may sound ridiculous, but at times like this one cannot help but wonder how different the global landscape would be if Frank Underwood were actually President of the United States.

    7. CommentedKarthik Tadepalli

      "Most important, America’s sanctions-driven policy toward Russia is likely to force the Kremlin to initiate its own pivot toward Asia – particularly toward energy-hungry, cash-rich China. At the same time, a showdown with Russia will compel the US to court China more actively. In a new Cold War scenario, China would thus be the big winner, gaining a wide diplomatic berth to pursue its territorial ambitions."
      This paragraph is indeed the most ominous part of this insightful article. China is the only real winner from the Crimea situation. While Russia is denounced and the US makes a fool of itself, China will play both sides and pursue their agenda in Asia even more aggressively than before, with no fear of action by the US, its only peer.
      Those who say that US leadership is ridiculous and shouldn't be considered are missing the point: if the US cannot protect its allies, its allies will begin to protect themselves. With massive quantities of armaments. This brings new meaning to the phrase "second Cold War". If countries believe they have to arm themselves to protect themselves, there might be a massive and terrifying arms race in the offing.
      This is why the US needs to pick up its big stick again, instead of trying to avoid being left red-faced in the Crimea situation. They are so fond of calling themselves the leaders of the free world. It's a shame they don't want to actually lead.

    8. CommentedJohn Brown

      Professor Chellaney has summed up the situation perfectly. Here is a more to the point version. Obama is the worst, weakest, most inept, INCOMPETENT, Dishonest, unreliable, and untrustworthy President in U.S. history. He has been played like a sock puppet by China, Syria, Iran, and Putin since he first took office. His gutting of both the U.S. economy and military is leaving the U.S. with fewer and fewer options even if Obama had any inclination to provide the slightest amount of leadership. His weakness and appeasement will almost certainly lead to future calamity. Meanwhile any friend or ally of the U.S. that trusts a word that comes from Obama is out of its mind. U.S friends in Asia need to understand that Obama is a pathetic and unfit President and they must look after themselves while he remains in office. Whether the U.S. can survive the disaster of Obama is in question. In the meantime the rest of the world is completely on its own.

    9. CommentedDaryl stevens


      The US is neither an empire nor is it declining, in anyway,whatsoever. The US supported a system that institutionalized State relations, to greater degrees and in relation to what would and could be adopted by other sovereigns, all of whom, face graver challenges than the US.

      The US supported a system that while not creating a perfect 19th century idealistic equality, as refined, defined and propelled under the great intellectual delusions of the post-WWII era, and becoming highly more illucid after the 1960's, has nevertheless worked to ensure a much greater global stability that has enabled states to grow inter-relations through trade, in a fair modicum of peace, in relation to the spread of tehcnology, the advance of all nations in material capability, both of which, necessarily create conditions for strength in peace and trade, or regional disturbances, not because of the US, but because of near regional disagreements, disturbances and similar.

      This has allowed others to free ride, and move in the fantasyland of delusion and complacence, imagining that merely by willing, or believing that underlying disagreements along all of the areas of inter-state, inter-national, and inter-cultural relations, in addition to those provided by the advance and dispersion of technology (which has been aided by the system supported by the US, but would have occurred nonetheless),that all of these disputes would merely be forgotten. Of course, by supporting a system in which states cooperated in the many new ways, that they have since the WWII, most clear and rational reviewers would understand that these network linkages would create new interests that could lessen other historical and material antagonisms.

      Asian Pivot

      Notions of Asian as the most vibrant area of the world, is more that Asia is an area of the world that has great challanges, which hasbenefited greatly from participation in the global system over decades, and has mitigated some of the challenges,while rising in material capability; and on any number of indices, but this is almost as by design of the system supported by the US, in the aftermath of WWII. That is, it is a cute notion that has been propelled by the growth of a system of links and ties, under principles of trade and cooperation globally, that the most populous region who faces environmental, technological, and human development challenges, becomes also a focus of interest and is supported by notions of importance and vibrancy, as it is hoped that the world continues to evolve in stability, peace and the advancement of the human on Earth in greater degrees of peace. It even relates to the superficial memes of the Economic discourse, where few understand the underlying principles that these memes are related to, and lessor knowledged journalists, reiterate the assumptions of others; for example while this notion is propelled, do you consider the wage share of gdp and its relation to consumption inthe construction of GDP, do you consider the percentage of Asian trade that is in intermediate goods with what percentage of final good consumption external to the region, do you consider the percentage of FAI in the construction of GDP, in human capital do you review what an engineer is called in country A as to County B, insofar as education, let alone quality of it, do you consider demographic trends and national system supports, do consider Wealth to Income Ratio's, Money Creation, Asset Bloat, Graft and Corruption, Dependency Ratio's, adaptation to technology, Food Security, Water most journalists regurgitate common noise for common minds.

      Again, it should be noted that the Asian pivot is requires other nations, as is for other nations, who must move past parochial needs, and support it, US power neither depends or is reliant upon it, although is enhanced by it, as it enhances the power of cooperating States.

      As Kindleberger notes, it was in the US's interest to allow its currency to be used for trade and Forex to promote a stable International order. Bothe Eichengreen and Gaullists are wrong to assume external use of the US domestic currency as beneficial to the US, actually it hampers the policy options, and broadens the interests that the US must consider; an exorbitant burden, that can be retracted.

      Jervis is one to read on the policies and practices of political power by States in different era's of polarity. The movement of the of others, in relation to the still greatly advanced material capabilities of the US after the Fall of the USSR and dissolution of the Warsaw pact is normal. In fact, the US has, and continues to get stronger in fundamental ways, and will continue to do so, as others have very many, gravely more challenging realities, points of contention and areas of strategic inertia in the face of real and growing problems; related to all the PEST trends one can imagine vis a vis the US.

      I have never liked this Leadership notion. The US is, still sits, and will long maintain, great and advanced material capabilities, if the natural course and progression of life, sees some narrowing in the frontiers between nations. Such might see some nations testing the water. The system existent, has long supported the bulk of small and weak states, and has enabled their independence. The peace and security of all have been supported by this. But those most challenged need do more, and others who have benefited greatly much more. As with others the US's security is supported by cooperation between states, but its security, do to Geography, continental and hemispheric resource abundance, and human capital capabilities is not as reliant on others. Others much do more to support their own interests. Leadership, for the US, is not the end we seek, as if we are children on a schoolyard, nor is it one we require. US power will long be a reality. The real question is if others can get back out of their heads and to their hands, in supporting a system, that lives not simply in the beliefs and desires of their minds.

      zgrave and dangerous weaknesses abound in Asia that could portend grave conseuqneces for the region, if the region is not careful, and others who help are not received in the right light. Too many out there, have severaly constrianed, immature notions of what is and should be, where we most focus on not simply the preferable, but the plausible and possible, creating space for the prweferable to come in time.

      Russia's actions, are alast gasp.
      China made mistakes a decade ago in pushing the model that has printed money, bloated assets, and enriched party elites as it has cycled their economy to a position that ensures deflation, eventually. this increases the likelihood of instability, perhaps progresses their aggressiveness, and requires conscious Asian states to create internal and external structures that can balance against and prepare for likely instability as we move out over the decades. This in the case that even more Nationalism and manipulated propagandized history is needed to harness the people to the interests of the nation's leaders as it traverses its economic and political morass.

      Velko, are you a short term reviewer of matters, have you even delved into history? The US is and has never been an empire, as Ikenberry notes, likely more Unipole in a system of Uni-Multi-Polarity. And one that has supported a system in which the Multi-Polarity could become more pronounced in linkages and shared interests to stem the inevitable rise of the material capabilities of States as the human footprint on the Earth expands; as it will continue to do.

    10. CommentedVelko Simeonov

      The US is slowly (or maybe not so slowly) following in the footsteps of every other empire that has, at some point of time, dominated the world, it is declining. It should be obvious to any sane person that nothing lasts forever, NOTHING. So rather than discovering over and over again that two times two equals four, we should also simply make the necessary steps to adopt to that new reality.

        CommentedJohn Brown

        I wish I could disagree with you, but when any country starts picking unfit and incompetent leaders, incapable of leading, like Obama they are doomed to decline. Obama could have been a horribly bad blip like Jimmy Carter, but he ran up over 7 Trillion dollars of DEBT and created trillions more of funny money created out of thin air to buy his reelection, and he succeed. So far the U.S. is showing no ability to wake up to the disaster its elected and arrest its decline. That means the decline will continue and accelerate. Whatever happens the future will likely mark the first election of Obama as the date in which its decline and fall began.

    11. CommentedVelko Simeonov

      The US is slowly (or maybe not so slowly) following in the footsteps of every other empire that has at some point dominated the world, it is declining. This is inevitable and we should all take steps to adapt to that reality. Nothing lasts forever.