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Saturday, December 10, 2016
- U.S. Vice President Joe Biden wrapped up his finger-wagging tour of Asia on Friday, with a busy week of lecturing the Chinese, trying to get the South Koreans and Japanese to play nice with one another, and damning North Korea with faint praise for releasing an 85-year-old American after more than a month of detention.
Aside from a couple of verbal gaffes, his performance elicited generally passing marks at home and abroad. But Biden’s effort did little to reverse the fundamental reality that the U.S. role in the region has dwindled over the last decade, despite recent efforts to reverse the trend.
The United States has long billed its presence in Asia as one of an “honest broker”. More recently, the Obama administration has tried to underscore U.S. interests in the region through its “Pacific pivot”, away from the roiling conflicts of the Middle East and toward the economic opportunities of the East.
U.S. policy, however, has been slow to pivot. Continued turmoil in Syria, nuclear negotiations with Iran, and a raft of domestic challenges have absorbed Washington’s attention. Biden’s trip was an effort to bolster U.S. commitment to Asia after President Obama cancelled his trip to the region in October because of the U.S. government shutdown. The vice president, definitely not an Asia hand, was an unusual choice for emissary.
“Politicians always make a virtue of sheer circumstance,” observed Patrick Smith, a longtime correspondent in Asia and the author most recently of “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century”. “Biden, we were told, was the right technology for this trip.”
“But Biden has no experience in Asia. He was the wrong guy in the wrong place,” Smith continued. “It underscored…that we just can’t keep up with events any more. I’ve seen this problem with pace coming for years, and now it’s here: China, Iran, Syria. We’re running to catch up.”
Biden’s mission was not just handicapped by his lack of deep regional knowledge. Instead of a bold effort to stay ahead of the curve, the Biden trip became an exercise in damage control when China announced a new Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) shortly before he set out.
The newly expanded zone includes a set of islands that Beijing and Tokyo contest – Diaoyu in Chinese, Senkaku in Japanese – and which Tokyo currently controls. It also covers a submerged rock that South Korea uses as a tiny maritime research station.
The United States responded to China’s unilateral announcement by sending two unarmed B-52 fighter jets to fly through the zone without advance notification. Japan instructed its commercial airlines to ignore the demand to notify Chinese authorities of their flight paths through the zone. South Korea most recently has responded with its own slightly expanded ADIZ to encompass the submerged rock.
In Beijing, Biden pushed the Chinese to back off from applying its new rules to disputed parts of the zone, and the Chinese reiterated their own sovereign right to do what other countries have already done.
So the vice president was left to repeat his own diplomatic boilerplate about the importance of cooperation over competition, saying in an interview with a South Korean newspaper, “Economically, diplomatically, militarily, we have been, we are, and we will remain a resident Pacific power.”
The past history of involvement and present alliance commitments certainly bind the United States to the region. Even if current tensions have more to do with simmering tensions between Tokyo and Beijing, Washington necessarily finds itself in the middle, leaning geopolitically toward Japan and geoeconomically toward China.
“My sense is that Washington will have to play a significant role,” argued Sheila Smith, a senior fellow for Japanese studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Two of the players, Japan and South Korea, are our allies. Crisis management will involve us – even if we are unprepared.”
The pivot to Asia was touted as a way for the United States to check rising Chinese influence, recommit to allies in the region, and tap into Asian economic success through trade and investment deals.
But Patrick Smith considered the pivot a “figment.” He explained that “if the thought now is to play the role in the region that we already played, that’s a reiteration and no more.” Rather than a set of new initiatives, the new policy is an effort to maintain the status quo. “The ‘pivot’ seems to reflect a desire to maintain things as they have been. I don’t see anything new in it,” he concluded.
Figment or fact, the “pivot” has not been an easy manoeuvre for the United States to execute. The Obama administration has been rearranging military forces in the region, sending Marines to a new base in Australia, expanding facilities in Guam, and negotiating new access agreements with the Philippines and Vietnam.
But local resistance has prevented the construction of a new military based to replace the facility in Futenma, Okinawa, and budget constraints at home make a significant increase in Pacific military presence unlikely.
Meanwhile, Japan has continued to develop its own more assertive foreign and military policy, most recently proposing to overturn its decades-old ban on weapons exports. Tokyo and Seoul have descended into a deep freeze in relations, with friction over their own disputed islands as well as Japan’s contrition – or lack of it — regarding its World War II actions in the peninsula. Further south, China and a number of countries spar over the South China Sea and the resources beneath the waves.
And Washington’s prospects for concluding a trade deal, the Trans Pacific Partnership, are not especially bright either. Opposition is fierce in some participating countries, such as Japan, and it will be very difficult for negotiators to meet the end-of-year deadline for the treaty’s text. Nor is the enthusiasm level in Congress particularly high.
Now that Biden is back in Washington, Asia is once again out of the U.S. headlines. Obama is heading to South Africa for Nelson Mandela’s funeral, the war in Syria grinds on, congressional opposition to the agreement with Iran continues to simmer, and the demonstrations in Ukraine are expanding. The territorial conflicts in East Asia haven’t disappeared. But the United States must attend to priorities other than its much-vaunted pivot.