Drang nach Osten – and a shift in the global balance of power 1

How goes Obama’s “pivot” –  or “tilt” – to the East?

The Washington Post reports that Defense Secretary Hagel is quietly busy seeing to it, with feeling:

Hagel, who has made five trips to the Far East in the past year, has sustained President Obama’s long-touted tilt toward Asia, even as he has been a nearly invisible player in the unending crises elsewhere that have eclipsed it.

By interest, history and temperament, Hagel appears to feel a sense of ownership in Asia.

A sense of ownership. What can that mean? Read on, and we may find out.

Despite the stalling of the Pacific trade agreement that is another cornerstone of Obama’s Asia “rebalance”

What is being referenced here is Obama’s failure to reach a trade agreement with Japan. Notice that the Obamaspeak for “failing” is “stalling”. Implied is a temporary hitch soon to be overcome.

 Hagel can claim steady progress in the military’s role of building regional alliances and partnerships. But those gains risk being overtaken by China’s rapidly worsening relations with its neighbors and escalating belligerency from North Korea.

Yup, a little advance here a huge set-back there.

In a speech Saturday morning to the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, a regional defense conference he first attended as a senator more than a decade ago, Hagel criticized China’s “destabilizing, unilateral actions” in asserting its maritime claims against other countries in the region. [Some of his] aides said he purposely used language sharper than in previous public statements on the subject.

Purposely? Is sharp speaking usually done  by him inadvertently? Obamarians feel uncomfortable speaking sharply to a foreign audience – other than Israel, of course.

So how sharply?

We take no position on competing territorial claims,” Hagel said, repeating U.S. insistence that its interests are rooted in a desire to balance alliances with Asia’s smaller partners and a smooth relationship with China.

That sharply? Hang on – here it comes:

“But we firmly oppose any nation’s use of intimidation, coercion or the threat of force to assert these claims.”

How firmly? As firmly as Obama opposed intimidation, coercion and the actual use of force by Assad and Putin?

The report mentions that intimidation, coercion and the threat of force is ongoing:

New air skirmishes have erupted in recent weeks in the East China Sea with Japan and in contested South China Sea waters with Vietnam.

So how firm on the Obama scale is Mr Hagel? There must be a shadow or a ghost of firmness somewhere about. It was detected by a Chinese lady general in a “restatement” of a “defense commitment” to Japan. Wow!

In questions following Hagel’s remarks, a Chinese general testily asked the defense secretary to explain what she called his own “subtle threat of force” in restating the U.S. defense commitment to Japan even as he called for a negotiated settlement of contesting claims to East China Sea islands.

Watch out now for the assertion that the Obama position is clear. Whenever an Obama position is very faint, particularly uncertain, he or one of his servants will say that it is “clear”:

America’s position is clear,” Hagel said. “These territorial disputes should be resolved through international law.”

International law. That clear? That firm? “International law” is a will-o-the-wisp, a fancy, a trick of the light, smoke and mirrors.

But at the same time, he said, the United States has treaty commitments to several countries in the region, including Japan, the Philippines and South Korea.

We like that “but”. There’s the sharpness, you see. “But” the US has treaty commitments. They may involve mention of military support! The big contrast to international law. Strong stuff, like the treaty commitment the US had to defending Ukraine’s independence. When Ukraine’s independence was threatened, when a chunk of its territory was seized by Russia, the US commitment held like cardboard in the rain.

But enough of ghostly saber rattling.

Those Eastern countries towards which Obama is tilting must be reminded of what Obama expects of them. What he expects of them is his policy towards them.

Returning to familiar themes, Hagel nudged South Korea and Japan toward greater defense cooperation that will allow a unified missile defense system against North Korea, which is suspected of preparing a fourth nuclear test. He called on China to play “a more active role” in using its influence on Pyongyang, urged Thailand’s military to restore democracy and praised Burma for ending military dictatorship.

And if they would only take those decisive steps, US partnership would prove a real boon.

If anything, Hagel indicated, “the Asia-Pacific’s shifting security landscape makes America’s partnerships and alliances indispensable as anchors for regional stability.” …

While budgets may be cut elsewhere, Hagel said, “both President Obama and I remain committed to ensuring that any reductions in U.S. defense spending do not come at the expense of America’s commitments in the Asia-Pacific,” where they have said 60 percent of U.S. air and naval assets will be based by 2020.

Although the administration has promised that resources saved by ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will be used both for the Asia rebalance and for the new Middle East and African counterterrorism strategy that Obama outlined this past week in an address at the U.S. Military Academy, a senior defense official said little competition was involved.

What could he mean by “competition”. Could he mean (shudder!) a possibility of military opposition? None of that sort of thing? So what matters are the alliances in themselves, not any purpose beyond  them. Do not even think it.

Asia, Hagel said in his speech, is an example of the stronger “global partnerships and alliances” Obama described this week as a cornerstone of his foreign and security policy. …

Now at last we are told why Hagel has “a sense of ownership in Asia”. Get ready to be impressed.

Hagel’s Vietnam experience is only part of his attachment to Asia, the senior defense official said. His father was a bomber tail-gunner in the Pacific in World War II. As president of the USO and a business executive who founded a lucrative cellphone network, Hagel traveled frequently to the region even before his election to the Senate in 1996.

And that adds up to –

“I’ve got this long history, this confluence with my background, my history,” said [an]  official, describing what he said was Hagel’s thought process. “It’s what I’m good at, what I’m interested in.”

We won’t even dignify all that with a comment – the silliness speaks for itself.

What we have to understand is that Hagel is determined to succeed. You may find this hard to believe, but he is as determined to succeed in the Far East as Secretary of State John Kerry was determined to succeed in the Middle East. That determined.

[His] aides portray Hagel’s dedication to the Asia-Pacific and his determination to succeed here as equal to that of Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s highly publicized (but stalled) efforts to forge an Israeli-Palestinian peace, only with less media attention and more potential for long-term success.

More potential, eh? Efforts that will not “stall”?  There’s optimism for you!

*

Meanwhile what is going on with the Far East in the real world?

Events so huge that they mark “a major alteration in the global balance of power”.

Charles Krauthammer writes (May 22, 2014) at the Washington Post:

It finally happened — the pivot to Asia. No, not the United States. It was Russia that turned East.

In Shanghai, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping signed a spectacular energy deal — $400 billion of Siberian natural gas to be exported to China over 30 years.

This is huge. By indelibly linking producer and consumer — the pipeline alone is a $70 billion infrastructure project — it deflates the post-Ukraine Western threat (mostly empty, but still very loud) to cut European imports of Russian gas. Putin has just defiantly demonstrated that he has other places to go.

The Russia-China deal also makes a mockery of U.S. boasts to have isolated Russia because of Ukraine. Not even Germany wants to risk a serious rupture with Russia (hence the absence of significant sanctions). And now Putin has just ostentatiously unveiled a signal 30-year energy partnership with the world’s second-largest economy. Some isolation.

The contrast with President Obama’s own vaunted pivot to Asia is embarrassing (to say nothing of the Keystone pipeline with Canada). He went to Japan last month also seeking a major trade agreement that would symbolize and cement a pivotal strategic alliance. He came home empty-handed.

Does the Obama foreign policy team even understand what is happening? For them, the Russia-China alliance is simply more retrograde, 19th-century, balance-of-power maneuvering by men of the past oblivious to the reality of a 21st century governed by law and norms. A place where, for example, one simply doesn’t annex a neighbor’s territory. Indeed, Obama scolds Russia and China for not living up to their obligations as major stakeholders in this new interdependent world.

The Chinese and Russians can only roll their eyes. These norms and rules mean nothing to them. Sure, they’ll join the World Trade Organization for the commercial advantages – then cheat like hell with cyberespionage and intellectual piracy. They see these alleged norms as forms of velvet-glove imperialism, clever extensions of a Western hegemony meant to keep Russia in its reduced post-Soviet condition and China contained by a dominant US military.

Obama cites modern rules; Russia and China, animated by resurgent nationalism, are governed by ancient maps. Putin refers to eastern and southern Ukraine by the old czarist term of “New Russia”. And China’s foreign minister justifies vast territorial claims that violate maritime law by citing traditional (“nine-dash”) maps that grant China dominion over the East and South China seas.

Which makes this alignment of the world’s two leading anti-Western powers all the more significant.

It marks a major alteration in the global balance of power. 

China and Russia together represent the core of a new coalition of anti-democratic autocracies challenging the Western-imposed, post-Cold War status quo.

Their enhanced partnership marks the first emergence of a global coalition against American hegemony since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Indeed, at this week’s Asian cooperation conference, Xi proposed a brand-new continental security system to include Russia and Iran (lest anyone mistake its anti-imperialist essence) and exclude America.

This is an open challenge to the post-Cold War, US-dominated world that Obama inherited and then weakened beyond imagining.

If carried through, it would mark the end of a quarter-century of unipolarity. And herald a return to a form of bipolarity — two global coalitions: one free, one not… [A] struggle  … for dominion and domination.

To which Obama, who once proclaimed that “no one nation can or should try to dominate another nation,” is passive, perhaps even oblivious. His pivot to Asia remains a dead letter. Yet his withdrawal from the Middle East — where from Egypt to Saudi Arabia, from Libya to Syria, US influence is at its lowest ebb in 40 years — is a fait accompli.

The retreat is compounded by Obama’s proposed massive cuts in defense spending … even as Russia is rearming and China is creating a sophisticated military soon capable of denying America access to the waters of the Pacific Rim.

Decline is not a condition. Decline is a choice. In this case, Obama’s choice. And it’s the one area where he can be said to be succeeding splendidly.

  • liz

    “The U.S. dominated world that Obama inherited and then weakened beyond imagining.” -Weakening America is all part of the plan and he has succeeded in accomplishing it. The only way he could have done that much damage was not by incompetence, but by the deliberate, purposeful execution of a planned destruction.
    Every domestic and foreign policy he’s enacted since day one has furthered this goal. Accompanied by nonstop serial lying. It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to put the pieces together here, but then he didn’t have to worry about being labeled a racist, either.