Obama Gets His Groove Back in Asia

Things weren't going well—but a string of recent events has the pivot swinging again.

Sometimes foreign-policy success occurs almost inadvertently—and when least expected. When President Obama cancelled his planned visit to Asia in October during the recent U.S. government shutdown, doubts amongst many in the region over the durability of the US “pivot” to Asia reached a crescendo. But a cascade of recent events, highlighted by B-52s defying a Chinese air-defense identification zone last week, have demonstrated U.S. resolve and a sense of assurance about the U.S. rebalance.

It began with the remarkable U.S. response to the horrendous disaster that typhoon Haiyan caused in the Philippines: more than fifty ships and planes, 9,500 troops and $37 million in humanitarian assistance. If there was any doubt about who answers Asia’s 911 calls, they were swiftly erased. Moreover, the U.S. effort contrasted with what was seen as a puny and mean-spirited Chinese initial response of $100,000.

China’s Expanding Interests

The B-52 flyover was part of a US-Japan military exercise in the East China Sea that served as a huge rebuff to an ill-conceived Chinese action. There is nothing unusual about Air Defence Identification Zones (ADIZs) per se; the US and some twenty other nations have created ADIZs, which can require foreign aircraft entering the airspace to identify themselves. But China unveiled its ADIZ on November 23with no consultation or warning in areas overlapping Japanese, Korean and Taiwanese airspace, triggering an ongoing international game of chicken. Not coincidentally, China’s ADIZ overlaps Japanese airspace over the Senkaku islands (called the Diaoyu Islands by China), tiny uninhabited rocks administered by Japan but claimed by China. It also overlaps a South Korean underwater reef, Socotra Rock (also claimed by China), which falls within Seoul’s ADIZ and on which it has built a research platform.

China’s ADIZ action was swiftly denounced in a statement by Secretary of Defense Hagel, who said, “We view this development as a destabilizing attempt to alter the status quo in the region. This unilateral action increases the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculations.” Secretary of State John Kerry added in his own sentiment that the United States “does not apply its ADIZ procedures to foreign aircraft not intending to enter U.S. national airspace.” Hagel emphasized that the U.S. would not change how it conducts military operations in the region. The B-52 flyover underscored both statements.

Both the Japanese and South Korean governments issued similar statements of indignation, and followed suit by flying planes over the zone, which they now do on a regular basis. China’s action will almost certainly energize efforts of Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to boost Tokyo’s military capabilities and role. It is also triggering an anti-China backlash in Seoul, whose relations with China had been getting chummier, after ROK president Park Geun-Hye was warmly received in Beijing last October, as China has sought to take advantage of a downward spiral in tense ROK-Japan relations. China’s action led JoongAng Ilbo, a leading Korean daily, to lament in a major editorial that “Northeast Asia is drifting toward an ominous turbulence.”

An initial meek Chinese reaction—Beijing merely said it was monitoring the B-52s , then on November 28 flew warplanes over the area in an effort to save face—suggests miscalculation and again raises disturbing questions about China’s opaque decision-making process. Then China scrambled fighter jets when U.S. and Japanese planes flew in the ADIZ. China’s move raised the stakes on what has hitherto been a maritime cat-and-mouse game, with Chinese paramilitary ships, and an occasional drone, entering the Senkakus’ territorial waters in a calibrated effort to undermine Japan’s ability to administer the disputed territory.

Why Now?