President Barack Obama in his swing through East Asia had his eyes on two countries that count not only as regional but also as global superpowers. For different but obvious reasons, worries about China and Russia, though not on the itinerary, hung over all that he said in Tokyo, Seoul, Kuala Lumpur and Manila.
It would be difficult to say which loomed as more important, China or Russia, but Obama, by deliberately avoiding China on a trip around its periphery, was sending a confrontational message that conflicted with his honeyed words of praise for China's economic progress. More important were his warnings against any power guilty of "intimidation" or "bullying" others.
Still more important were the teeth that he seemed to be putting into that message by reassuring Japan that surely the U.S.-Japan security treaty applied to all the territory occupied by Japan, including that cluster of islets in the East China aSea known as the Senkakus by Japan, Diaoyu by China.
And when he got to Seoul, amid reports that North Korea was preparing a fourth underground nuclear test, the implicit message was that China should exercise its influence to get the North to call off the test. Obama backed up that theme by declaring, "We will not hesitate to use our military might to defend our allies and our way of life."
Although those words most obviously targeted North Korea, they also reinforced the U.S. pledge to defend allies against China's growing strength in the region. And they might apply as well to U.S. concerns about Russia's takeover of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine and President Vladimir Putin's support for Russians defying Ukrainian rule over eastern Ukraine. Like it or not, Russia was in the news, and Obama had to issue grave warnings as ethnic Russians took over Ukrainian offices and held entire towns knowing that powerful Russian forces lurked just across the border, ready to move in.
In Seoul, standing beside President Park Geun-hye, Obama asked rhetorically whether Putin was "willing to see the Russian economy… weakened further because he is unwilling to deal with Ukraine in a diplomatic fashion that respects their sovereignty?" The real question, though, was whether America's NATO allies would care or dare risk sanctions against Russia that would jeopardize their own dealings with Russia, the source of much of their natural gas and other resources.
Obama's rhetoric sounded increasingly hollow as he talked of the "arrows in our quiver" in case Putin did not take the hint. He was talking the same line when he got back to Washington, declaring as he received German Chancellor Angela Merkel that "we have a range of tools at our disposal, including sanctions that would target certain sectors of the Russia economy."
The fear of Russian defiance of U.S. and European warnings echoed in East Asia against the din of equally strong rhetoric about China's rising strength. The specter of a second Korean War, in which China would surely support its ally and dependency,
North Korea, had to have been the reason for Obama to agree to "reconsideration" of the deadline at the end of next year for OPCON, by which time South Korea is to be ready for full "operational control" of its forces in time of war and the Combined Forces Command would cease to exist. Neither South Korean nor U.S. commanders believe South Korean forces will be ready by then.
It was in Manila, though, Obama made his most dramatic commitment to the "pivot" of U.S. forces and resources to East Asia. Yes, U.S. forces were supposed to be gone from the Philippines by 1991 when the U.S pulled out of Clark Air Base after ashes from the eruption of Mount Pinatubo inundated the airstrip and the Philippine Senate refused to renew the lease on the bases.
Cautiously, however, the US and the Philippines escalated their defense relationship with a landmark agreement on U.S. forces carefully scripted to sidestep a constitutional ban on "foreign military bases, troops, or facilities" except when approved by Philippine senate or by a national referendum.
Obama, on his first visit to the Philippines, hailed the agreement, signed by the US ambassador and the Philippine defense secretary, as "an important new chapter in our relationship." That said, he quickly added that the US was "not trying to reclaim old bases" and did not plan to "build new bases."
Instead, the "Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement" EDCA, would provide for U.S. forces to rotate in and out of Philippine bases for missions ranging from narrowly defensive to humanitarian to training the Philippines' small, weak military establishment to fight guerrillas from the communist New People's Army and Islamic terrorist groups. The agreement is to last ten years - after which it can be renewed.
Obama denied any desire to "contain" China, but that's what his trip was all about. Just as he had issued ringing reassurances of the U.S. commitment to South Korea and Japan, so he left no doubt as to what lay behind the deal, telling Philippine World War II veterans that the U.S. commitment "to defend the Philippines is ironclad" because "allies never stand alone."
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