With a considerable amount of fanfare, the Obama administration has spent most of the past two weeks “pivoting” our foreign policy toward Asia. This “pivot” is being broadcast as if the current administration was the first to notice Asia’s importance. Never mind that American presidents have been actively involved in Asia at least since Commodore Matthew Perry was sent there to force open Japanese ports for trading. If we forget about the Pacific theater in World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Nixon’s trip to China, etc., then maybe it is possible to believe that this administration is the first one to take note of Asia’s importance. Of course, Presidents Clinton and Bush visited Asia over a half-dozen times each. So there is a chance the region was relatively high on their agendas. Last week’s Asian tour was President Obama’s third visit to the region, although one of those was for a G-20 summit. As far as I can see, therefore, the current administration has so far paid about as much attention to Asia as its predecessors.
So what does this much-heralded strategic “pivot” mean? Rather than admit that its Asian policy for the past three years has been a disaster, the administration has decided to go with the story that it neglected Asia for three years so as to concentrate on fixing the rest of the world. With Iran about to go nuclear, the Arab Spring turning into the Arab Winter, and Europe melting down, the administration has apparently decided to write off these unsatisfactory places and “pivot” its attention to Asia. On the plus side, however, after three years of getting it all wrong in Asia, the administration is apparently ready to face reality.
For the first time, the administration appears ready to give up on policies and initiatives that portrayed us to the Chinese as weak and irresolute. Previously, the administration’s refusal to sell much-needed arms to Taiwan and the decision not to have President Obama meet with the Dalai Lama caused our regional allies to start questioning America’s willingness to stand up to Chinese bullying. As the American financial crisis worsened and the administration offered Congress plans to substantially cut the military, our Pacific allies were given additional reasons to doubt America’s ability and commitment to stay engaged in Asia.
China was not slow to take advantage of the perception of American strategic retreat. Instead of cautiously testing the waters in its relations with its neighbors, China began dictating to them. This new aggressiveness is clearly on display in the oil-rich South China Sea, which China is rapidly trying to turn into a Chinese lake. That other nations in the area believe they have an equal right to the sea’s resources is of no concern to Chinese leaders, who have demonstrated nothing but contempt for their neighbors’ complaints.
Almost 2,500 years ago, Thucydides wrote about the small island of Melos, which was trying to navigate a difficult middle ground as the two great powers of the age — Sparta and Athens — warred with each other. At one point, Athens demanded that Melos renounce neutrality and join the Athenian alliance against Sparta. The Melians first told Athens to beware, as they were a Spartan colony and Sparta would surely come to their aid. Seeing that the Athenians were openly contemptuous of Sparta’s power and resolve to come to their aid, the Melians switched tactics. They began pleading that it was wrong for a state as powerful as Athens to behave in such an aggressive manner to its weaker neighbors. The Athenians replied: “. . . you know as well as we do that right is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” In the end, the Melians resisted but were rapidly overcome. The price for not bending to Athens’ will was that all of the Melian men were killed and the women and children were sold into slavery.
The growing perception that America lacks either the wherewithal or the resolve to come to the aid of nations in China’s proximity has sent those countries scurrying to find other solutions to their security problem. With China treating them with the same contempt Athens showed to Melos, and unsure that America’s protective umbrella was still overhead, the region has begun looking toward its own self-defense. If this trajectory continues, one can easily foresee a regional arms race culminating in at least South Korea and Japan becoming nuclear powers. Moreover, as China continues pushing its neighbors about, the chances for miscalculation and war increase exponentially.