February 17, 2014 00:00 By Kavi Chongkittavorn
In a time like today of rapid power shifts, the world's heavyweights are no longer occupying themselves with the usual strategic ambivalence - their mantra over the past three decades. Such a mindset was the right attitude to have in the past, but someho
In the past weeks, top US policy makers have made clear one very important fact: that the US would defend its treaty allies, especially Japan and the Philippines. The two countries are having territorial problems with China. Before that, questions were repeatedly asked whether Washington was ready to defend them vis-à-vis attacks from unfriendly countries. The answers then were quite simple – they all depended on the circumstances and nature of the conflict.
In 1979 when the Taiwan Relations Act was enacted, it remained unclear whether the US would defend Taiwan, notwithstanding Washington’s obligation to sell arms to Taipei. For the past 65 years, the relationship has served its useful purpose – avoiding war across the Taiwan Straits. Now the prospect of even closer Beijing-Taiwan relations has increased followed the historic meeting between their officials in Nanjing recently.
In the case of the Philippines – a US ally since 1951 – Washington has moved gradually from strategic ambiguity to clarity after the growing tension in the South China Sea dispute. The clearest message came from the US Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, who reiterated recently that the US would honour its mutual defence treaty with the Philippines. That much was clear. Manila has tried for years to get Washington’s tacit pledge that the US would help to ward off enemy attacks.
Currently, the US is facing a security headache, which has unavoidably forced the abandonment of long-observed strategic ambiguity. This time, the US aims at appeasing an anxious Japan. Earlier, when China and Japan quarrelled over the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, nobody thought it would reach the current Houdini-level of danger and suspense. Both countries are walking a tightrope with no exit strategies in sight for the time being.
US Secretary of State John Kerry used his latest Asia trip to impress upon Japan Washington’s political commitment. If Japan and China go to war, the US will be dragged into conflict as well, thanks to growing webs of strategic interdependence. Other US allies in the US would also be mobilised if that were the outcome.
China is succinct in its position regarding its sovereignty over disputed islands, both in the East China Sea and South China Sea. Beijing also declared recently an air defence zone above the East China Sea and imposed new fishing rules off Hainan Island. The Chinese military leaders were not shy in saying they were not ruling out the option of using force if China’s territorial integrity had been violated.
An unwavering security commitment from the US would serve as a deterrence to avoid war. When US President Barack Obama visits Asia in April, all eyes will be on his stopovers in Japan and the Philippines and what Obama has to say regarding the growing tension in this part of the world and the US grand strategy.
Last June in California, Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed on their new modes of bilateral relations to promote peace and stability. Since then the two powers have also fine-tuned their strategic relations with the countries in Southeast Asia. Beijing has been quite perceptive in saying that the US rebalancing efforts have stirred up the regional strategic situation, causing more imbalance in the region. US allies and friends are expecting more help to defend against external threats. China’s recent actions have been perceived generally as a key security debacle. However, many Asian countries still have good and stable ties with Beijing.
One major power – Russia – has for the time being stayed out of this strategic competition. During the Cold War, the former Soviet Union was the region’s security concern. The third-time elected Russian President Vladimir Putin has put his attention elsewhere in the more turbulent and beneficial battlegrounds in the Middle East and Africa.
Essentially, Russia will stay on the fence and watch how this game of strategic clarity plays itself out. Russia is not going to jump into any messy political power plays in Asia again, after the quagmires of Indochina and Afghanistan. After the 1987 decision to withdraw from Indochina, the former Soviet Union failed to reconnect with the region — barring Vietnam. Putin has missed the newly launched East Asia Summit three times since 2010. He could easily have augmented his country’s role and global leadership by attending the EAS and helping to shape the emerging regional architecture. Russia will wait and welcome the countries dismayed or distracted by the growing US-China tensions over what to do and what not to do.
What would be the endgame of the US’s strategic clarity? With all purposes and intent, the US wants to reiterate its commitment to defend allies against external threats to win back their confidence. Of course, Washington believes no nation on Earth would dare to go to war with the US.