Ball in China’s Court: Obama’s Asia Trip

April 30, 2014

The agenda of President Barack Obama’s week in East Asia left little doubt that security was the paramount focus of his excursion. The largely unstated yet obvious object in this regard is China’s increasingly assertive behavior, given the disputes over the Senkaku/Daioyu Islands and the Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea. Obama’s cancelled visit to the region last October, combined with U.S. inaction over Russia’s seizure of Crimea, is said to have damaged U.S. credibility in Asia. Obama’s trip, with its focus on security, has repaired some of the damage. The ball is now back in China’s court, with leaders in Beijing now obligated to consider the stiffening resistance forming along the First Island Chain. American military planners, anticipating China’s next moves, are preparing for escalation, and a possible test of U.S. credibility.

Obama began his tour in Japan and immediately signaled the main theme of his week. He explicitly committed the United States to the defense of the disputed Senkaku Islands, whose possession and administration by Japan is challenged by China. Obama further signaled the importance of the U.S.-Japan alliance by agreeing to a formal state visit to Japan, which included a state dinner hosted by Emperor Akihito. In South Korea, Obama’s summit meeting with President Park Geun-hye focused on North Korea’s nuclear program and China’s seeming indifference to North Korea’s bad behavior. In Manila, Obama and Philippine President Benigno Aquino III signed a 10-year defense cooperation agreement that will facilitate an increased presence of U.S. troops, aircraft, and ships in the Philippines for training exercises and operations in and around the South China Sea.

To end the week’s security theme with an exclamation point, U.S. defense officials briefed the Wall Street Journal on beefed-up military options to respond to potential Chinese provocations in the East and South China Seas. These options reportedly include B-2 bomber flights near China and aircraft carrier strike group exercises near China’s coastal waters.

Obama’s pushback against China during this trip is indisputable. And after Obama’s cancelled visit last October, the diplomatic repairs of this tour were essential to U.S. strategy in the region. That said, all is not yet well for the United States and its allies. During his press conference with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo, Obama, while affirming the U.S. defense commitment to the Senkakus, also stated, “We don’t take a position on final sovereignty determinations with respect to Senkakus.” That is long-standing U.S. policy. But it also undermines Japan’s own position: that there is no dispute with China over the islands’ sovereignty.

Obama’s tour also left behind unfinished business. The United States would greatly improve its diplomatic position and leadership credibility if the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement was completed. Alas, the economic boost and multilateral bonding the United States and its allies would enjoy (and need) from the TPP will have to wait. No one country is ever to blame for stalled trade negotiations. However, Obama has not displayed any enthusiasm for confronting his own domestic constituencies on trade, a requirement for getting Congress to approve any trade deal. Completing and implementing the TPP would be the best indication that America’s “Asia Rebalance” is more than a military strategy, and that it binds the U.S. and its allies into a larger shared vision of diplomatic and economic success. But Obama himself will have to show more passion for this line of effort if he wants to see his grand strategy succeed.

The Asia Rebalance is often blamed for placing too much focus on the shift of U.S. military resources to the region, with insufficient attention given to the trade and diplomatic components of the strategy. Yet the most worrying shortcoming of the U.S. strategy in East Asia is its inadequate and increasingly risky planned military response. U.S. plans and military forces have not adjusted to the military capabilities China now possesses.

In order to establish control in the event of an escalation, U.S. commanders need forces and operating concepts that clearly convince adversaries that further escalation is a losing proposition. Unfortunately, the options described in the Wall Street Journal – pushing bombers and aircraft carrier strike groups near China’s shore – are pages from an old and obsolete playbook. It is no longer March 1996, when China could do nothing while the U.S. moved in two carrier strike groups during the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis. China’s two-decade military modernization program is specifically designed to overcome the deficiencies identified during the 1996 crisis. Now China has thousands of precision anti-ship missiles mounted on a variety of platforms, poised to deny U.S. surface naval forces access to the waters near China’s coast. The U.S. Air Force’s B-2 stealth bombers are more ready for the task. But only a handful are available, far too few to do much against China’s dispersed forces.

Beefed up or not, the brittle pages of the old U.S. crisis response playbook discussed in the Journal lack credibility and could result in Washington losing control over events. If the U.S. crisis response plan calls for massing its vulnerable ships and short-range aircraft inside the range fans of China’s missiles, Beijing’s response may be “bring it on.” That sounds like a story that won’t end well.

President Obama’s tour through East Asia was an important success. He put the ball back in Beijing’s court for the next moves in the East and South China Seas, where the U.S. is preparing for escalation. Unfortunately, these seemingly rote preparations play to China’s strengths and thus increase the risk of an unnerving confrontation. Instead of the old playbook, military planners need to provide policymakers with options that bypass China’s plans and that take advantage of Beijing’s particular weaknesses and vulnerabilities. China’s ruling cohort now leans on symbols of prestige, economic momentum, and a veneer of leadership solidarity, all increasingly fragile illusions. Escalation management options that target such frailties won’t resemble the old crisis response playbook. The best players adjust when the game has moved on.

 

Robert Haddick is an independent contractor at U.S. Special Operations Command. He writes here in a personal capacity. In September 2014, U.S. Naval Institute Press will publish Fire on the Water: China, America, and the Future of the Pacific, Haddick’s book on the rise of China’s military power and U.S. strategy in East Asia.