For most commentators, President Barack Obama’s biggest achievement in his four-nation tour of Asia was the enhanced defense treaty he signed with Philippine President Benigno Aquino. The pact permits US forces to operate on Philippine military bases and sets the conditions for joint training of US and Philippine forces, among other things.
There are two problems with the treaty, however.
And they reflect the basic problem with US foreign policy generally, five-and-a-half years into the Obama presidency.
First, there is the reason that the treaty became necessary.
The Philippines has been under attack by China since 2012 when China seized the Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines. Despite its mutual defense treaty with Manila, Washington did nothing.
This non-response emboldened China still further.
And today China is threatening the Second Thomas Shoal, another Philippine possession.
So, too, late last year China extended its Air Defense Identification Zone to include Japanese and South Korean airspace. The US responded to the aggressive move by recommending that its allies comply with China’s dictates.
The administration’s top priority in all these cases, as well as in the case of Beijing’s challenge to Japan’s control over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, has been to avoid conflicts with China.
But American timidity and refusal to abide by US treaty obligations to the Philippines and Japan have had the opposite effect.
By not responding to Chinese aggression, far from moderating China’s behavior, the Obama administration emboldened it. And in so doing, it destroyed the US’s deterrent posture in Asia. As China’s increasingly belligerent behavior has made clear, Obama’s attempt to appease China was perceived in Beijing as a green light for further aggression, because the Chinese correctly determined that Obama would never make them pay a price for seizing territory and otherwise harming America’s Asian allies.
Under these circumstances, Obama had no choice but to sign an enhanced defense treaty with the Philippines.
Far from calming the situation, though, the treaty increases the chance of war between China and its neighbors. No one, least of all China’s leadership, is fooled by Obama’s whiny insistence that the defense pact isn’t directed against China. And now China, already itching for more confrontations, will feel compelled to respond strongly.
This brings us to the second problem with the Obama administration’s new assertiveness in Asia. It simply isn’t credible.
On Wednesday, The Hill reported that due to Obama’s cuts in defense spending, for four months in 2015, the US will have no aircraft carriers in Asia. In other words, even as Obama’s rhetoric signals a renewed US military commitment to its allies, Obama’s defense cuts empty his pledges of substance.
We already know Obama lacks the will to confront China. And his decision to downsize the US military ensures the US will lack good options for confronting it in the coming years.
During his joint press conference in Manila on Monday with Aquino, Ed Henry from Fox News asked Obama to explain his foreign policy doctrine.