The U.S. in Southeast Asia: Learning or teaching?

September 25, 2012 --

Asia, Blake Day, China, Uncategorized

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Senkaku/Diaoyu . Image from NYTimes.

One of the biggest recent news stories in the East Asian Region is the continuing territorial dispute between China and Japan. The two world superpowers have been involved in the dispute for longer than either would care to admit, given the nature of the islands themselves. The islands, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, consist largely of nothing but jagged rock faces, overgrown shrubs, and wild birds. Despite this fact, the dispute has flared recently, even causing the Chinese to cancel plans for an event that was supposed to mark 40 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

In the midst of what is turning out to be a very heated and potentially damaging debate, United States Defense Secretary Leon Panetta just completed a week-long visit to the Asia-Pacific region. The reason for this visit, as outlined by Panetta himself, was to proceed with military-to-military talks with China. In an even broader sense, the main focus of the visit was to learn the United States’ role in the ever-changning region. Secretary Panetta had not originally planned on making the territorial dispute a main focus of the visit, but the issue reached new heights while he was in China, and it quite emphatically became a frequent topic of discussion. Panetta frequently reiterated that the U.S.’s stance was neutral and that the two opposing sides should seek earnestly for a diplomatic and non-confrontational way to resolve the conflict. But was the timing really as coincidental as it appeared? And was this trip really about learning the U.S.’s role?

First: the timing issue. The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands have been a sore spot for Sino-Japan relations since at least WWII. The islands have been uninhabited for the same amount of time. However, on September 5th, Japan announced that it had made a deal to purchase the islands from a family who claimed to own them. Less than a week later, Chinese officials released a statement that if Japan were to go through with the deal, economic ties and trade between the two countries would be greatly hindered.

Considering this backdrop, one might argue that trip really did serendipitously coincide with the rising issue. However, add to the mix the fact that Secretary Hillary Clinton had just completed a 10-day long visit to the exact same region and the picture becomes clear. Poor trade between China and Japan means poor trade between the U.S. and both China and Japan. Apparently, Secretary Clinton’s visit did not accomplish everything it needed to, and so the U.S. brought in the big boys, a.k.a. the Department of Defense.Panetta announced while in Japan that the U.S. will provide further missile radar in Japan to help combat the North Korean threat. Shortly after this kind offering, Secretary Panetta “subtly” urged Japan to resolve the conflict and to do it quickly. The ulterior motive here is blatant. The U.S. is showering both sides with gifts, visits, and friendly encouragement so that we can protect our own interests without considering the impact to either of the other countries. Granted, protecting vital U.S. trade allies is inherently a good thing, but the lack of understanding on the U.S. side is rather embarrassing. The dispute is not really about the islands. The dispute is really about which country is going to emerge in the next decade as the dominant force in the region. The islands are merely a type of things to come. Meanwhile, the U.S. sends in secretary after secretary to urge the countries to resolve the issue and get back to trading so that the U.S. economy can get back to growing. Of course, the issue is not going to be resolved quickly or peacefully. The country who comes out on top may very well dictate Asian-Pacific policy for at least the next generation. So instead, the U.S. needs to take a step back, not intervene where we are not wanted or needed, and let the situation play out.

Second: the role of the U.S.  There is no conceivable way that after two world wars and a host of other proxy wars, the U.S. is just now learning its role in the region. Even if the region is undergoing massive changes, the role of the U.S. will not, or at least should not, change. The idea that Panetta’s visit was more about learning than it was about teaching is absurd. Everything about the visit screams that the U.S. is the “city set on a hill” and that all other nations ought to learn from our ways. Secretary Panetta went so far as to say that if the issue could not be resolved, the leadership must be irresponsible. This sort of demeaning approach is certainly going to turn out unfavorably for the U.S. The idea that “responsible” leadership should be able to prevent a decades-old conflict overnight is not only demeaning but ridiculous. In short, Panetta was not in China and Japan last week to learn the U.S.’s role in the Asia-Pacific region; he was there to forcefully tell China and Japan their role in a changing United States.

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