Saturday, June 04, 2016

Déjà vu All Over Again at Shangri La

Scanning the transcript, Ash Carter gave the same “we’re back baby!” speech at Shangri La Dialogue No. 16 that he gave at the Council for Foreign Relations and Annapolis.

So I think my current Asia Times piece Ash Carter’s Blissful Bubble of Oblivion has added value as a Shangri La ‘splainer.  Read it at the link.  

From Carter's perspective, the inability of the Asian countries to cobble together their own security regime is an opportunity for the U.S. to insert itself in the matrix, and create, shape, and direct a security architecture primarily through a network of bilateral and occasionally trilateral "and beyond" relationships mediated through the US.

It takes Asian weakness, disunity, and incapacity as its departure point, in other words.  That should give people pause.  I think it gives Asia pause.

I don’t doubt that US military backup is welcome to the PRC’s nervous neighbors; but I am seriously curious if Carter’s staff is telling him that means the Asian countries relish America using that heft to claim leadership of the Asian security regime, a mindset that President Obama proclaimed for a domestic audience to push the TTP trade pact:

America should write the rules. America should call the shots. Other countries should play by the rules that America and our partners set, and not the other way around.

Per Carter's formulation at Shangri La:

the United States will remain, for decades, the primary provider of regional security and a leading contributor to the region’s principled security network...


...the United States will remain the most powerful military and main underwriter of security in the region for decades to come – and there should be no doubt about that –

The America must be in the driver’s seat narrative will apparently continue in the incoming Clinton presidency, judging from her statement in her San Diego Trump-flambe:

If America doesn’t lead, we leave a vacuum – and that will either cause chaos, or other countries will rush in to fill the void.

The Chinese boogeyman obviously being invoked here, but gotta wonder how Clinton’s Apres moi le vacuum rhetoric plays among the Asian democracies, which have certain current and future vacuum-filling capabilities of their own.  

 Countries like Japan, Indonesia, especially India.  I will be amused if, in twenty years, President Chelsea Clinton tells us we have to remain the dominant military power in Asia to protect it from the elephant menace.

I think of Carter and Clinton’s speechifying as pre-emptive warnings to the Asian partners as well as the PRC that the US is determined to drive the narrative, and not let others set the tone even if—especially if--disunity, economic interests, crummy strategy, and hiccups like Duterte’s interest in bilateral contacts with the PRC threaten to upset the pivot apple cart.  

And no offshore balancing for you, Stephen Walt!

Japan, in my opinion, is already highlighting the conceptual weakness of the pivot.  It is cleverly exploiting its privileged position as the only pivot partner the DoD desperately depends upon to play its own hand, busily backfill its own strategic position in Asia, while paying lip service to American leadership and playing the part of pivot deputy sheriff as part of its own zero-sum economic competition with the PRC.

Or as Japan’s Defense Minister General Nakatani put it:

Japan will help Southeast Asian nations build their security capabilities to deal with unilateral, dangerous and coercive actions in the South China Sea, Japan's defense minister said on Saturday, in pointed remarks directed at Beijing.

"In the South China Sea we have been witnessing large-scale and rapid land reclamation, building of outposts and utilization of them for military purposes," Japanese Minister of Defence Gen Nakatani said during a speech at a regional security conference in Singapore on Saturday, without mentioning China directly. "No countries can be an outsider of this issue," he added.

Bear in mind, Prime Minister Abe had previously informed the Diet that Collective Self Defense didn’t cover the South China Sea because Japan had alternate energy import channels.  Well, goodbye to that.

To help the Philippines and other Southeast Asian nations deal with China's expansion, Japan is helping them improve surveillance capabilities, conducting joint training exercises and cooperating in developing new equipment, Nakatani said.
Japan, emerging from a decades-long period of pacifism, is seeking closer military ties with Vietnam, Indonesia and other nations surrounding the South China Sea.

Abe just sent a special adviser to meet Duterte in the Philippines to press him to persist with the UNCLOS arbitration strategy, so that the whole multi-lateral magilla that gives Japan a stronger diplomatic footing down South China Sea way doesn’t go all agly.  Pleeeeeeeeeeeease don’t go bilat, was the message:

“I personally talked with your president-elect regarding the South China Sea issue. I personally think that a multilateral dialogue will be very important and very beneficial for all the countries which are engaged to that issue,” Kawai said at a press conference at the Japanese Embassy on Friday

Lord forbid bilateral talks between the Philippines and PRC could defuse the South China Sea crisis.  Nothing must stop the precious pivot, in other words, or Japan’s opportunities to profit from it strategically, diplomatically, and militarily.

Meanwhile, Ash Carter continues to lecture Asia.

Carter reminds me a bit of Larry the Lobster, the smug bodybuilder who apparently got written out of the show when he muscled in too much on the screen time of the Yellow Menace, a.k.a. Spongebob.

Let’s see what happens at Shangri La 17, after the UNCLOS arbitration decision, Duterte’s mano a mano with the pro-US crowd in Manila, and who knows that else.

Because the US is in Asia for the long term.  That’s both a promise and a threat.

1 comment:

Pineapple-in-Chief said...

are you sure you meant' centripetal'force in your Asia times piece? its centrifugal force that tends away from the centre.