War games and even war threats are proliferating in Asia following President Obama's trip, but confrontation with China may now be less likely following U.S. strengthening of its alliances with Japan and the Philippines.
China historically has been known to push for advantage, then seek accommodation only when there is push-back. Now the U.S. and its major ally in Asia, Japan, have pushed back, jointly putting China on notice while continuing to seek peaceful relations.
In Japan, Obama put to rest any question of U.S. ambivalence about Japan's Senkaku islands, threatened by China. The president stated unequivocally that the islands are under Japan's administration, and therefore are protected by U.S. defense agreements. U.S. secretaries of State and Defense have said the same thing before, but the pledge by Obama is seen as a bold restatement and essential to the U.S. pivot to Asia.
In the Philippines, U.S. armed forces will now be able to maintain a rotating presence at as many as five Philippine bases, probably to include Clark Air Base and Subic Naval Base, once the largest U.S. military installations. Importantly, other locations are expected to include Fort Magsaysay in the north of the Philippines, and other bases that look out on the South China Sea, where China occupies Philippine territory.
The choice of bases is being determined by a joint study of the Philippine military and its defense department, with detailed input by the U.S.
So far Chinese officials have been relatively quiet in response to the U.S. support for Japan and the Philippines, although state-controlled Chinese media has been apoplectic: "The U.S. and Japan will taste bitter fruits..."
China's true reaction is yet to be known. Should one or more of the Philippine bases used by U.S. forces be seen by China as a chokepoint against it in the South China Sea, reaction could become more serious than media spouting. One base under consideration is close enough for U.S. forces to assist Japan in potential aggression by China against the Senkakus. Taiwan is also close.
As soon as Obama returned to Washington, war games were scheduled in Asia by coincidence or design by almost all of the international players. The U.S. and the Philippines are engaged in an annual joint military exercise called Balikatan, which means "shoulder-to-shoulder." Balikatan 2014 takes place at Fort Magsaysay, the huge 86,000-acre installation the U.S. is eyeing as training ground for future operations under the new 10-year defense accord.
Japan is conducting an island defense exercise in the Ryukyi chain, some 375 miles from the Senkaku Islands threatened by China. About 1,300 Japanese troops will practice retaking an uninhabited target island. Japan recently announced construction of a radar base on Yonaguni island, less than 100 miles from the Senkakus.
China will conduct naval drills with Russia off the Chinese coast, while Russia is increasing its military flights over the Pacific.
The immediate war threats, not a game, concern Vietnamese and Philippine territories in the South China Sea. In the latest escalation of a running dispute with Vietnam, Chinese oil interests placed a giant oil rig in Vietnamese waters, with Chinese ships then intentionally ramming Vietnamese vessels.
China's official line is that the huge oil rig is only a commercial venture, not a military effort against Vietnam. Petroleum experts, however, say there's no commercial reason for such an oil rig to be singularly located in the area, which is within Vietnam's internationally accepted economic zone.
The Philippines meanwhile seized a Chinese fishing boat and crew illegally capturing endangered turtles in fishing grounds belonging to the Philippines. China has demanded release of its fishermen, but is noticeably less shrill than in the past.
That China may now think not only twice, but multiple times, about aggression in the South China Sea and East China Sea is perhaps best demonstrated across the world at NATO headquarters in Europe
There Japan's prime minister, Shinzo Abe, spoke and compared Russia's invasion of Crimea to what Asia fears about China. He pointed out, for example, that China's "persistent intrusions" into Japan's territorial waters have caused as much scrambling by Japan's military aircraft as anytime during the Cold War.
Signing a new partnership with NATO, Japan was praised by Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen as NATO's oldest partner outside Europe and North America, contributing billions of dollars worldwide to support NATO.
If China will look closely at the growing concerns of its aggression from the U.S., Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam and other Asian nations, and now NATO, it may reconsider how best to contribute to world peace and prosperity, growing fruits that are sweet, not bitter.