THE BLOG

A Far-Flung Strategy Unfolds: From Washington to Mumbai to Tokyo to the South China Sea

07/28/2013 08:39 pm ET | Updated Sep 27, 2013

"I state without apology that we are a Pacific power. America is a Pacific resident power and we will remain so. The truth of the matter is our resident power status is the reason why this area of the world is able to grow and be stable.

"Our mere presence in the Pacific is in and of itself the basis upon which stability of the region is built. You are the glue that holds all this together."

Vice President Joe Biden, addressing the crew of USS Freedom, first in a new class of U.S. Navy ships based in Singapore.
July 27, 2013

While the the melodramas of the moment which too often define the media culture played out -- first the Royal Baby Watch, then the resurgent Weiner Wagon, er, waggi... er, forget it -- America's Asia-Pacific Pivot continued over the past week with major developments. (See Pivot archive here.)

In a host of seemingly disparate events ranging across many thousands of miles, a multi-faceted geopolitical strategy played out on multiple fronts. And so, to a certain extent, did a reaction to that strategy.

The leaders of the US, India, Japan, the Philippines, and Singapore all had big roles to play. As did the leadership of China, the venerable Middle Kingdom once again on the rise around which many of these moves revolve.

In India, Vice President Joe Biden spent four days meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and other top leaders to further the two countries' loose-knit alliance on economic and security issues, in the process delivering a major address at the historic Bombay Stock Exchange, Asia's first, in Mumbai, the world's fourth largest city.

It's largely forgotten now -- and was mostly ignored at the time in the media sensation over the White House gate-crashers -- but Obama's first State Dinner back in 2009 was for India. Obama intended even then to further the alliance with the world's most populous democracy. For a variety of reasons, including not only the then nascent Asia-Pacific Pivot but also the future of Afghanistan once the central US role there ends.

In Singapore, where Biden went next, the veep met with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his legendary father, Lee Kuan Yew, who did much to create the model of the Asian Tiger economies (Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Taiwan). Biden also delivered a speech about the Asia-Pacific Pivot at the big Pratt and Whitney aircraft engine plant and visited the USS Freedom, the new Navy littoral combat ship now homeported in Singapore as beginning part of the Pivot strategy. (Though Freedom's permanent homeport remains San Diego.) Just before Biden arrived, Singapore and the US completed a naval exercise, including Singaporean forces firing a Harpoon missile for the first time, from an aircraft at a small vessel.

Biden also met on Saturday with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the USC-educated leader of Japan's resurgent longtime ruling party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP, which while democratic is not exactly liberal). Abe was there as part of his own tour of the Asia-Pacific, his party having won a smashing victory just a week earlier taking control of both houses of the national parliament.

Back in Tokyo, Abe's government was just announcing plans for a major military revamp in reaction, it said, to challenges from China and North Korea.

The Japanese prime minister then went on to the Philippines, where he met in Manila with President Benigno Aquino III to further economic and security relations, bringing an agreement to pay for 10 badly needed patrol ships of Japanese manufacture to a fledgling navy which is being increasingly overawed in the waters of its own exclusive economic zone by Chinese forces.

Before Abe arrived, the Filipinos decided to accelerate plans to allow the return of US forces to Subic Bay, once arguably the world's greatest naval base, and to move their own naval and air assets to the old American base to enable faster reaction. Subic Bay, not far from Manila, is just 125 miles from Scarborough Shoal, home to extremely rich fishing grounds, which was taken over on a de facto basis last year by Chinese forces.

Filipinos also staged demonstrations against Chinese diplomatic missions in a number of countries around the world on Wednesday, protesting China's aggressive moves in the South China Sea in furtherance of its action against China before the United Nations-created International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg, Germany.

While all this played out across multiple venues, President Barack Obama was back in Washington, where he hosted Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang for a first ever bilateral meeting in the White House on Thursday. Just a few decades ago the bitterest of American enemies, Vietnam is on the verge of becoming a fast American friend and key ally.

By an odd coincidence, while Biden met with top officials concerned with the simmering crisis in the South China Sea -- home to vast stores of petroleum and fisheries, one of the world's most strategically situated bodies of water -- Obama hosted the president of a country engaged in tense stand-offs with China over the PRC's expansive claim of sovereignty over virtually the entirety of the South China Sea.

Recognizing the "extraordinarily complex history between the United States and Vietnam," Obama made clear on Thursday that the US and Vietnam will move ahead on deepening ties despite disagreements about human rights issues.

After meeting with President Sang in the Oval Office, Obama announced a "comprehensive" framework for the relationship. He also announced the two countries' commitment to complete a Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement before the end of 2013.

Led by the US, the Trans Pacific Partnership talks involve 12 countries -- Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the US, and Vietnam. Notable by its absence is China. Biden said during his tour of the region that the US is aiming for the completion of a TPP deal this year. That would create one of the world's biggest free trade zones.

Obama and Sang also made a point of discussing the South China Sea crisis, with Obama praising Vietnam's approach calling for multilateral negotiations on claims and development of a code of conduct, Which is also that of the US.

Coincidentally, following Biden's four-day visit there, India is offering Vietnam a line of credit to acquire four patrol vessels.

This will help Vietnam in its maritime stand-off with China, which claims a part of the South China Sea that Vietnam wants to develop for undersea oil production with, again by an odd coincidence, India.

Then on Saturday, Obama celebrated with fanfare the 60th anniversary of the Korean War Armistice at the Korean War Veterans Memorial. The US alliance with South Korea is a major cornerstone of American strategy in the Asia-Pacific. The war, which saw US and South Korean forces fending off a North Korean invasion later joined by the Chinese army, is frequently described as a draw, but Obama called it a clear victory, with South Korea flourishing and North Korea hermit-like and impoverished.

How is China reacting to all these moves, including Obama celebrating a war fought against its own forces?

There doesn't seem to be a lot of public reaction. But a Chinese military aircraft did an unusually close fly-by of Okinawa at the end of the week, leading to Japan scrambling fighter jets in response. Chinese public intellectuals have lately been pushing for Okinawa to move for independence from Japan, which it's been part of since the 19th century, noting that it was a tributary state of China in the past. That would be the past as in 500 years ago.

And there was this. The Chinese naval task force that completed joint naval exercises with Russia earlier this month in the Sea of Japan just returned to base a few days ago. What took so long? The Chinese ships took a literally circuitous route, pointedly sailing around the entirety of Japan.

And then, as word came of Biden's talks with the Japanese prime minister in Singapore, almost as if on cue, heavily armed Chinese coast guard vessels entered Japanese waters for the first time around the East China Sea's Senkaku Islands, long held by Japan. Biden affirmed in the meeting, and a subsequent US statement confirmed this, that the US treaty commitment to Japan includes backing it against any serious threat to the Senkakus, which China is trying to claim as the Diaoyu Islands.

The Chinese ships spent three hours in Japanese waters, trading, at least this time, not hostile fire but heated warnings with Japanese forces.

Developments with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who in addition to meeting with Biden also went to Manila for talks with and an offer of naval aid to Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, may be the most intriguing. Abe, who did graduate work in public policy at the University of Southern California in the late '70s, announced Saturday that Japan, defined as a pacifist country in its post-World War II constitution, will establish a US-style National Security Council to better engage emerging security issues, notably around China and North Korea.

More significantly, Japan will also establish its version of a Marine Corps -- last month saw joint US/Japan amphibious exercises along the California coast, as I discussed at the time on my New West Notes blog -- and a drone aircraft force, as well as heightened methods to counter constant threats of North Korean ballistic missile attacks.

Under Article 9 of what to many is its surprisingly liberal (considering the source) General Douglas MacArthur-imposed post-World War Ii constitution, Japan is blocked from using force except in the case of self-defense. But there are creative ways to define self-defense.

And Abe, a strong nationalist, wants to reboot the role of Japan's military to meet what he and other strategists think is a very different security situation in the region, with China looking to superpower status and North Korea sounding increasingly threatening. Of course, Japanese nationalism has its own threatening overtones in the Asia-Pacific, as does American globalism.

With Japan making moves to strengthen itself and its alliances with the return of the LDP to political dominance, look for a summit between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping to match June's California summit between Obama and Xi.

As he headed to Honolulu at the tail end of his tour, Biden dismissed talk of potential Chinese economic woes affecting America's own rickety recovery from the great global recession.

China's explosive growth has slowed. To a mere 7.5%. It will still overtake the US as the world's largest economy in coming years. Japan is evidently drawing up its plans to deal with an ongoing powerful and assertive China.

With its vast stores of capital and growing industrial prowess, China has pursued economic engagement and soft power in countries all around the world. And it is rapidly upgrading it military, air, and naval forces, utilizing the latter especially as it seeks what its neighbors fear is hegemony over the South China Sea and increasing sway over the East China Sea.

So concern over its moves is natural. Which does not mean we should not question what Japan, the US, and even India are really up to as this scenario unfolds.

While confrontation is not only not unlikely, since it's already occurring, but inevitable, outright conflict is not inevitable even as China resists what it sees as containment. With the supra-rational element of religion a relatively minor factor in most of the Asia-Pacific region, events can play out in more logical ways than they do at the other end of the geopolitical pivot.

The US and China in particular have mutual needs, not to mention a certain symbiosis, as well as major points of friction. A creative tension is very possible. But only if we understand what is going on.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ... www.newwestnotes.com.