Friday, April 25, 2014

I Am Feeling Queasy, Now That You Mention It

President Obama stopped in Japan on an Asia trip to reassure our allies. I sincerely wish our president good luck.

This is going to be a tough presidential trip to Asia:

Rice described the purpose of the tour in vague and airy terms: “This is a positive trip with a positive agenda that underscores that the United States’ commitment to this region is growing, and is a cornerstone of our global engagement and is going to be there for the long term.”

Nothing is wrong with an American president spreading goodwill and eating good sushi, but the photo-op nature of the trip risks contributing to a perception that Obama’s Asian policy, and his foreign policy in general, is similarly itinerant. He’s seeing the sights, getting some good pics and moving along — more tourist than architect of world affairs.

I suspect that in retrospect, the Japanese will have fonder memories of that state dinner with George H. W. Bush a couple decades ago.

President Obama did state that the Senkakus fall within our security pact with Japan, while stating the mostly irrelevant caveat that the status of the islands must be settled peacefully between Japan and China:

“The policy of the United States is clear—the Senkaku Islands are administered by Japan and therefore fall within the scope of Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security. And we oppose any unilateral attempts to undermine Japan’s administration of these islands,” the U.S leader stated ahead of his visit to Japan starting Wednesday. ...

He also stressed that maritime issues should be handled constructively. “Disputes need to be resolved through dialogue and diplomacy, not intimidation and coercion,” the president said.

Obviously, Japan could sell the islands or whatever and that is not our business. But as long as Japan holds them, we'd help defend them. That's a good statement to make to reassure Japan and provide fair warning to China.

At this point, the danger is that China will simply disregard what Peking views as another meaningless White House red line against taking steps that supposedly have consequences.

UPDATE: The president also offered military support for the Philippines, but did not guarantee we'd be fighting at their side against China.

I'm actually fine with that. The Philippines might want more, but that's not happening. As I've written before, we cannot pledge to automatically fight while the Philippines do not. Manila cannot escape the need to build up forces sufficient to fight China in small-scale campaigns that our pledge of assistance hopefully keep at a low enough level for the Philippines to win (with our support out of the line of fire).

I'm more worried that after losing a reputation for resolve, our president's welcome statements of resolve won't be believed in Peking:

In February, following Mr. Kerry's visit to Beijing, Chinese leaders told a visiting American delegation that they didn't take U.S. warnings seriously.

"Unfortunately, I don't think they're convinced by our muscularity," said a former administration official who took part in the delegation. "If we think we're ready to pull the trigger but they don't think that we're ready to pull the trigger, that's when bad things happen."

That's the problem. Once you lose a reputation for resolve, you probably have to fight to regain the reputation.

Have a nice day.