It is fitting that the same week President Obama was in Hiroshima grappling with the legacy of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Ash Carter was at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis asserting the US “commitment to playing an essential and pivotal role in the Asia-Pacific for decades to come,” largely through the unrivaled capabilities of the US military.
Let it be said I am not a fan of the Ash Carter perspective. In my view, Carter dwells happily and uncritically at the heart of the Pentagon bubble, where American military dominance is ipso facto the greatest good, securing that dominance is the best way to advance the interests of the United States, and keeping America militarily dominant is the best possible outcome for the ROW (“Rest of World” in mil-speak).
My view is that attempting to sustain U.S. military predominance at the same time U.S. economic dominance is eroding is a destabilizing, dangerous, expensive, distracting, and ultimately futile process.
In Asia, the U.S. has cobbled together a network of ostensibly like-minded partners — Japan, the Republic of Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, India — to implement a grand alliance against the PRC menace.
Trouble is, the PRC is not the USSR plus the Warsaw Pact — a military menace and an economic autarky — and the US team in Asia is not NATO. We are herding cats, and the PRC is setting out the supper dishes.
The PRC is a significant bilateral economic interlocutor with all of the US allies in Asia, and the PRC economic role is regarded seriously and relatively positively, particularly by the smaller countries. Significantly, the power with the most forward anti-China stance is the one that increasingly sees itself locked into a zero-sum economic competition with the PRC, Japan.
And Japan, even as it sees itself as the PRC’s strategic adversary, is looking to supplant as well as augment US influence in partner nations in the China containment alliance such as the Philippines, Vietnam, Burma…and Taiwan.
Taiwan islander nostalgia for Japanese colonial rule and the DPP’s deep ties with the Japanese right wing are perhaps not well understood by the U.S. public, but President Tsai regards Japan under Prime Minister Abe, not the US, as her most simpatico and supportive foreign friend. During the DPP administration, Taiwan will evolve into a strategic partner of Japan on economic issues and China diplomacy, and the United States, in my opinion, will be hard-pressed to keep up.
So the United States pivot to Asia is beset by centripetal forces (a good metaphor: imagine the alliance circling the U.S. pivot point and splitting up as more spin is applied) and keeping this unwieldy construct in one piece is a difficult, expensive full-time job, one that yields ample and profitable employment to a legion of analysts and strategists, and is an excuse to fatten the conventional forces budget, especially of the Navy, to an obscene degree.
Enter Ash Carter, the bureaucrat “genetically engineered to be Secretary of Defense”. Too bad, thanks to the de facto coup that removed Chuck Hagel and put Pentagon China hawks into the driver’s seat for U.S. China policy, Carter is also handling East Asia diplomacy and public messaging as well, two things he was manifestly not engineered to excel at.
In a speech at the Council for Foreign Relations, in preparation for his recent swing of military undiplomacy through Asia (canceled trip to China, observation of joint US-Philippine Balikatan military exercises, India visit), Carter complaisantly declared that Asia was a region that, thanks to U.S. military presence, “had it good for 70 years”.
Bear in mind this was a period that included the Vietnam War and its knock-on effects (the bombing of Laos, the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia), the U.S.-backed coup against Sukarno in Indonesia, the detested U.S. presence in the Philippines that culminated with the deposition of the brutal U.S.-backed strong man Ferdinand Marcos…
Also at CFR, Carter got a bit carried away talking about India:
The U.S.-India relationship is destined to be one of the most significant partnerships of the 21st century. Ours are two great nations that share a great deal — democratic governments, multi-ethnic and multicultural societies with a commitment to individual freedom and inclusivity, and growing, innovative, open economies.
Over the course of my years at the Defense Department, I’ve seen a remarkable convergence of U.S. and Indian interests, what I call a strategic handshake. As the United States is reaching west in its rebalance, India is reaching east in Prime Minister Modi’s Act East policy that will bring it farther into the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
Prime Minister Modi was banned from the United States until his elevation to the PM spot for his notorious role in the anti-Muslim pogroms at Gujarat, and had blockaded Nepal — which was already flat on its back from the April 2015 earthquake — in order to force it to revise its constitution to favor the ethnic Indian minority, an exercise in regional power bullying that easily dwarfs any PRC maneuvers at Scarborough Shoal…
More to the point, India is also determinedly unaligned, a state of affairs that will long outlive Secretary Carter and his attempts to sign up India as a US strategic ally.
So let us fast forward to Carter’s remarks at Annapolis, which received a lot of attention, especially the “Great Wall of Isolation” trope. I’m suggesting the U.S. military’s fondness for Great Wall analogies (see Admiral Harry Harris’s “Great Wall of Sand”) exemplifies its disregard for the reality that when it comes to a lot of the issues that matter in Asia, especially economic, the PRC is not isolated. As for the U.S…
As to the central question of why the U.S. is compelled to butt in on the South China Sea issue, and to deflect the accusation, well-founded in my opinion, that the US stirred up this crisis in order to wrench the region’s attention away from economic issues (in which the U.S. is increasingly peripheral) to security (USA! USA! USA!):
Now, some in China have argued the United States is an outsider to the region. But, of course, we’re a Pacific nation. Our treaty relationships, economic agreements, and long-welcomed military presence in the region have made us an Asia-Pacific stakeholder forever.
China has also suggested that we separate the issues involved in the South China Sea from our broader relationship. But the United States cannot do such a thing. China’s actions there challenge fundamental principles, and we can’t look the other way.
Bear in mind, the United States finds plenty of opportunities to look the other way when actions by our allies and assets challenge fundamental principles, noteworthy current examples being Israel (defiance of UN resolutions on the Palestinian issue), Saudi Arabia (bombing of Yemen using cluster munitions) and Bahrain (violations of human rights in suppression of domestic dissent). I might also point out that the U.S. itself is bombing Syria without its permission…
Plenty of precedents, in other words, for the US to look the other way if it did not want to stir the pot.
What is scary is the possibility that Carter is so far down the Department of Defense conceptual rabbit hole that he believes his own hype.
The PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs was rather acerbic in calling out Carter’s tunnel vision:
We have noted US Defense Secretary Carter’s remarks on China… I want to say that given the level of globalization, clinging to the Cold War mindset will lead nowhere. We have no interest in any form of Cold War, nor do we intend to star in any of the “Hollywood blockbuster” scripted and directed by some officials of the US military.
If you want to have common sense on Asia don’t talk to Ash Carter, in my opinion. Listen to Singapore.
The Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Hsien Long, recently gave a long interview to the Wall Street Journal. Lee states pretty clearly he is looking for something more than US military leadership of the anti-China side of a polarized East Asian security regime.
PM: You can say that you are rebalancing towards Asia, but is it words or is it deeds? And if in fact, you are rebalancing towards Asia with aircraft carriers and airplanes, what is it in aid of? All your partners in Asia-Pacific have China as their biggest trading partner. The Australians, the Japanese, the South Koreans, most ASEAN countries, including Singapore since recently. So, to develop a trans-Pacific relationship, you have to deepen the trans-Pacific trade and investment ties, which have done so much to benefit the people of both sides. If you are not prepared to do that, then what do you mean when you say you are deeply invested and want to do more together?
It is a process of adjustment for all of the countries to have a new rising power in the region. If you examine it rationally and dispassionately, you must conclude it is better to have a strong China rather than a disorganized and a weak one, stable rather than fractious and exporting revolution, but it is still a process of adjustment. Suddenly, our neighbor has become a much bigger than he used to be and there are opportunities which arise, but at the same time, you have to make adjustments and pay more attention to his likes and dislikes. It is so between people, it is so between countries. And all of the countries want to be friends with China, even those which have issues with China like over the South China Sea. They can adjust. I think they would be more comfortable doing that if it is an open region and there are other participants and they can maintain an omnidirectional policy. If you only have one relationship, well, then between being a friend and being a client, the line is grey.
In a rather amusing illustration of “cognitive dissonance”, the Journal inadvertently highlighted the gulf between regional and U.S. attitudes toward the Department of Defense’s obsession du jour, the South China Sea, and the fact America’s anxiety about coming up short in the manhood-measuring contest is not automatically the most pressing concern of the nations that share the SCS with the PRC:
WSJ: But this would mean US should acquiesce in China’s ability, willingness or just facts on the ground that it wants to establish to say, ‘Alright, they are establishing those facts, fine, we do nothing about it. We can have a few ships sail by and that is about it’.
PM: Well, whether an atoll is one hectare or 50 hectares does not change the strategic situation. What changes the strategic situation is the intent and the capabilities of the major powers and where does America stand? Where do the Japanese stand? The Indians one day will be more than a sub-continental power and will have an interest in the broader areas in Asia. What do their countries believe, what do their countries do, what are they prepared to commit and how do they engage, maintaining their interests and yet at the same time able to avoid collisions? It is always a game we have to play between powers.
The U.S. is not the leader in Asia; it’s a player, albeit a very big one. It’s time to get used to that. But can Ash Carter?
Peter Lee runs the China Matters blog. He writes on the intersection of US policy with Asian and world affairs.