Obama has announced sanctions on Russia, because that’s what you do these days when you have no options, but don’t want to look weak. From Asia, what really matters is the sense of strategic latitude it will inspire in Beijing, and the pessimism it will arouse in Tokyo. Both of these sentiments will make America’s job in Asia harder. And if the president keeps overreaching in his response to crises, the trend of emboldening potential adversaries and worrying its allies will continue.
Perhaps the most striking thing for Washington about the events centred on Crimea, is that it’s only America’s second-biggest problem. There are a few reasons for that.
First off, there are no threats of armed force being used by Russia against any allies of the United States. Several of the territorial disputes in East Asia are risky, though the ones between China and allies of Washington are handled more carefully, for unlike in Ukraine, America is obliged to go to war to protect them if it comes to blows.
America’s allies in Europe are fundamentally more than capable of taking care of themselves, despite being disorganised. Western Europe’s major powers are formidable. Germany’s economy alone is much larger than Russia’s, and the EU’s GDP is more than six times the size of Russia’s. Russia’s economy is to the EU what Belgium’s economy is to Russia’s. Of course the exercise of military power is about more than economics, but economics is the foundation.
Asia is different. A Europe suddenly deprived of the United States would still be in a very strong position. An Asia deprived of the United States would not. That’s both because of the size of China relative to other powers in Asia, and because Asia’s middle powers would not work together in the same way that we could expect even of Europe. In short, Tokyo needs Washington in a way Berlin doesn’t.
So more is riding on American resolve in Asia than it is in Europe. Both because America’s alliances in Asia are at issue, and because of the real need for Washington’s help in more than just the short term should everything turn nasty.
From the point of view of Asia, the disparity between the approach adopted by Washington and its capacity to change the situation centred on Crimea is worrying. Just last week the US President said: “We will stand with Ukraine and the Ukrainian people in ensuring that territorial integrity and sovereignty is maintained.” It was optimistic then, and looks foolish now. Secretary Kerry’s visit to Kiev looks to have been either detached from reality, or self-consciously without serious political purpose.
Washington doesn’t have enough leverage over Russia on this issue to force Putin’s hand—at the fundamental military level, America simply cannot bring enough force to bear to reverse Russia’s movements. At the economic level, Europe is too dependent on Russian energy for drastic coercion. Without these basic levers, all Washington’s other implied and actual threats are hollow.
That matters in Asia, because whether it’s true or not, if the Obama administration continues to build a reputation for crying wolf, it will embolden Beijing and alarm Japan.
Now it’s probably true that the incremental degradation of American credibility will draw attention, and lower the threshold for adventurism for Beijing. The less credible US warnings are, the more likely China is to flout them.
Obama has made a habit of empty “red line” type statements; like over Syria’s chemical-weapons use, or telling Russia “there will be costs”—implying they would be prohibitive when they weren’t. That increases the risk that America’s actual red lines in places like the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands won’t be taken seriously either.
But, there are lots of reasons for China to take America seriously too. Washington seems to be standing-by the Air Force and Navy while cutting the Army—a sign that it’s serious (at least up to a point) about the Western Pacific. And after all, Japan is the ally on which America’s whole position in Asia depends.
The more important impact of Obama’s line on Crimea is likely to be on Japan. Although it’s a complex picture, the increasing sense that Japan is going to have to look after itself is an important part of the ascendency of nationalism under the Abe government. These fears are driven by concerns over the credibility of Washington’s alliance commitments should a tense moment with China turn into a war.
Japan’s recent skittish behaviour on the international scene, antagonizing its neighbours in a number of ways, has increased tension in northeast Asia. Relations with Seoul are particularly strained, and things are more difficult between Tokyo and Washington than either side would wish them to be as competition appears to deepen with Beijing.
A continued gulf between American (implicit or explicit) undertakings on one hand, and its capacity and resolve on the other, will drive this trend further. The main tasks in managing the flashpoints in North East Asia will be restraining Japan, and deterring China. To do that, Obama’s administration will need to place a higher premium on the credibility of its strategic undertakings.
The best approach, counterintuitively, would be to accept what Washington cannot do. By drawing a distinction between the issues where America is able to and will accept the costs of meaningful unilateral action, and those issues where it cannot, Washington could make it possible to breathe new life into both its promises and its threats.
Obama could have done that by standing resolutely but firmly behind the Europeans over the crisis in Ukraine. The United States is still immensely strong, but it can’t be out front everywhere at once any more. It must make choices, not least of all because Washington’s adversaries know American power has limits too.
Harry White is an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute; these views are his own. Follow him on Twitter:@HarryEWWhite.