“What would America fight for?” exclaimed The Economist, as it cautioned the Obama administration against strategic retreat and neo-isolationism. It dismissed President Obama’s foreign policy as a cerebral doctrine that excuses inaction — one that is based on visceral recoil at confrontation and distaste for strategic gamble. It warned Washington about increasing doubt among allies, many of them relying on the American security umbrella, which “risks making the world a more dangerous, nastier place,” as strategic rivals such as Russia and China become “keener to dominate their neighbours”.
Well, the U.S. President Barack Obama’s recent visit to Asia (April 23-29) was, at its very core, a “reassurance” maneuver, an attempt to calm the nerves of allies and underscore Washington’s commitment to remain as an anchor of stability in Asia. And in many ways it was a partial success.
After all, the trip allowed Obama to unequivocally state Washington’s commitment to come to the rescue of Tokyo if a conflict were to erupt over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea. And he couldn’t be more reassuring. A more careful analysis reveals that the motivation behind Obama’s categorical statement of military solidarity with Japan had a profound diplomatic implication. On the surface, Japan and China are “sleepwalking” into a war, the greatest nightmare for Asia, over a bunch of rocks and deeply-buried (prospective) hydrocarbon resources. In reality, however, Obama has strengthened Japan’s negotiating position vis-à-vis China, which has actually reduced its maritime incursions into Japan’s territorial waters — probably out of a fear of uncontrolled escalation.