President Obama just completed a four-country trip to Asia two weeks ago. Before his trip, expectations were high that he could get some major achievements and China would be the loser. For example, U.S. analyst Ely Ratner expected Obama to do three things in Japan: 1) declare that Article V of the U.S.-Japan defense treaty covers the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands; 2) single out China for engaging in provocative and destabilizing actions; and 3) voice strong support for Japanese constitutional reinterpretation on the issue of collective self-defense, though as it turned out later, Obama only did the first thing.
However, when we look closer at what Obama got out of his Asia tour, overall the U.S. didn’t gain much from this trip, to the disappointment of hardliners in the U.S. and Japan. For example, even though Obama officially declared that the U.S.-Japan security treaty will cover the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, during his joint press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe Obama also quickly pointed out that it is not a new policy and that both Japan and China should restrain themselves. In Obama’s words: “I emphasized with Prime Minister Abe the importance of resolving this issue peacefully — not escalating the situation, keeping the rhetoric low, not taking provocative actions, and trying to determine how both Japan and China can work cooperatively together. And I want to make that larger point. We have strong relations with China. They are a critical country not just to the region, but to the world.” What is really interesting here is that Obama also wants Japan to keep the rhetoric low and not to take provocative actions. Perhaps because of such balanced remarks and other issues, some Japanese commentators are disappointed.
In response, China told Japan not “to wave a chicken feather as a token of authority” (拿着鸡毛当令箭) because China is fully capable of defending its territory in the Diaoyu Islands. Moreover, China would conduct military excises near the Diaoyu area. Indeed, China and Russia will hold a joint naval drill in the East China Sea in May, thus sending a strong signal to Japan that China is fully capable of defending its territory, including the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. So in a sense, the U.S. decision to enhance its relationships with its Asian allies has pushed China and Russia closer, which is not a good thing for long-term U.S. strategic interests in East Asia.
Another seemingly major achievement of Obama’s Asia tour is the 10-year defense agreement signed by the U.S. and the Philippines, which would enhance the U.S. military presence in Asia. But Obama was very careful not to anger China by saying that the agreement was not targeting China, even though everyone in the region sees it exactly as a means to contain China. Interestingly, Obama didn’t say the U.S. would use force to assist the Philippines in its dispute with China. Also, U.S. senior officials privately contacted the Chinese government about this agreement before Obama took the trip. Together, these signals suggest that the U.S. is unwilling to go to war with China when conflict occurs between China and the Philippines.
Many Chinese analysts (here and here) were also quite calm about Obama’s gains from this trip, though a few commentators viewed it as very negative for China. They point out that the fundamental reason for the disappointing performance of Obama’s Asia trip is U.S. domestic weakness, referring to a declining military budget and domestic political deadlock. As China Foreign Affairs Minister Wang Yi has noted, China has strategic confidence and stability, will adhere to its own development strategy and will not be influenced by outside forces. Perhaps this is the fundamental reason why China did not react strongly to Obama’s tour in Asia.
As if to show China’s strategic confidence and stability, China unilaterally placed an oil rig in disputed waters between Vietnam and China, causing collisions between Vietnamese and Chinese ships. Moreover, China blamed the United States for stoking tensions by encouraging countries to engage in dangerous behavior when the U.S. criticized China for being provocative.
The timing of China’s unilateral action puzzles many observers since China and Vietnam seem to have had a stable relationship in recent years with regard to their territorial disputes. Others suggest that China’s action was a tit-for-tat response to Obama’s trip in Asia two weeks ago. While it is very hard to determine China’s motives in this particular action, it might be helpful to view this action and China’s decision in late 2013 to establish an air defense identification zone as steps in a long-term strategy to enhance China’s claims to disputed territories.