New U.S. Policies for China, Russia Must Be Backed by Action

New U.S. Policies for China, Russia Must Be Backed by Action
Photo: President Barack Obama with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Rancho Mirage, Calif., Jun. 8, 2013 (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza).
While most Americans have been absorbed over the past month in the usual medley of celebrity scandals, from Donald Sterling’s racist comments to Jay Z’s family troubles, the Obama administration has quietly hinted at two changes in its approach to U.S. foreign policy that, if followed to their logical conclusion, signal a major reorientation in how Washington plans to conduct international affairs. The first, in response to the crisis in Ukraine, has been, as Peter Baker of the New York Times described it, to develop “an updated version of the Cold War strategy of containment” for dealing with Russia. The last remnants of the “reset” policy have been swept away, and with them, the hope that engagement with Moscow could put the U.S.-Russia relationship on a firm foundation of mutual interest. The second was President Barack Obama’s statement, during his trip to Japan, that all of the Senkaku Islands—whose ownership is currently a matter of dispute between Japan and China, as well as Taiwan—are covered by the Article 5 guarantee found in the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, which commits the U.S. to respond to an attack on “territories under the administration of Japan.” While other officials have suggested this was the case, Obama’s statement was the first time an American president made such an explicit guarantee, as opposed to reaffirming long-standing U.S. policy that continues to avoid taking any definitive side in this or other territorial disputes in the region. As such it carries much more weight coming from the mouth of the chief executive. Of course, the president has made other statements in the past that did not end up presaging an actual shift in U.S. policy, most notably about the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war being a red line for U.S. intervention. It is just as possible that the background comments on Russia and the presidential line in Japan were issued not to indicate fundamental changes in direction, but to achieve shorter-term political ends—to mollify critics who believe that the administration has not done as much as it should to confront Russia or to give Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe the political cover he needs to make concessions to advance the U.S.-sponsored Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact. If so, there will be no real change in the U.S. posture in the world. But these are not words to be used lightly. “Containment” does not mean the imposition of a few targeted sanctions and the deployment of several hundred military personnel or the holding of a few extra military exercises. While it may employ an asymmetric response, the policy means using all tools of national power—including economic and military—to blunt another country’s ability to project power. Bringing other former Soviet republics, such as Ukraine and Georgia, into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization may not be feasible, but a neo-containment strategy would certainly rebuild America’s forward military posture in Europe and develop credible plans for the immediate defense of the Baltic states with the deployment of sufficient naval, land and air forces in the vicinity. It would be accompanied by an immediate push for changing U.S. legislation and rapidly developing the infrastructure for exports of unconventional American hydrocarbons to the European market, as well as a full-court diplomatic and financial effort to jumpstart long-proposed but never implemented alternate projects that bypass Russia as an energy provider. Finally, containment is the absolute reversal of the policies pursued over the past several years that were designed to integrate Russia more tightly into the global economy. It means that after encouraging the American business community to strike deals with Russia, the administration would have to convince them to, in essence, write off those investments. (Some sources suggest that the Obama team is debating a compromise approach should further sanctions be levied, one that would grandfather in existing deals but bar new investments, as a way to build up support within the business community.) Similarly, extending explicit presidential guarantees to Japan suggests that the administration has weighed the options and believes either that further progress in the U.S.-China relationship is not possible or that siding so clearly with Japan will not further upset U.S. relations with Beijing. However, one hopes that the president’s commitment to Japan was assessed by the interagency process, because it, too, is not a guarantee to be given lightly, given China’s past incursions in the waters around the disputed islands. Like NATO guarantees given to the Baltic states, a pledge to defend the Senkakus is not one that should be extended in the hopes that it will never be called in. The decision by the Chinese National Overseas Oil Company to deploy an offshore rig in waters also claimed by Vietnam—and to have dozens of coast guard vessels on hand to escort the equipment—demonstrates that Beijing is prepared to act in defense of its claims. The U.S. pivot to Asia, so far, has largely been rhetorical. To back up its commitments, Washington will need more than words. Perhaps the president, in choosing to make the statements he did, wanted to make the rebalance of U.S. attention, resources and military capability to the Pacific irreversible—and to signal that he really does intend to shift away from the overemphasis on the Middle East for the past decade. What is troubling, however, is that both of these developments—a 21st-century-style containment of Russia and an increased risk of confrontation with China—took place without much discussion or debate in Congress or with the American public as a whole. Given that it was a lack of domestic political support for robust action in Syria that terminated plans for a U.S. military response to enforce the chemical weapons red line, it seems odd that further policy lines would be announced without the concordant engagement of the American public to accept possible new burdens. Perhaps the administration’s calculation is that its willingness to vocalize these new postures will be sufficient to cause Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping to reassess their own courses of action. In other words, simply threatening containment and confrontation will prevent those futures from becoming self-fulfilling prophecies. The problem, however, is that both Putin and Xi focus more attention on deeds than on words. To be taken seriously, then, the Obama administration will need to show its willingness to pay the costs of starting to implement these strategies—and that, even in the months prior to a fiercely contested midterm election, it has the support of the American people to do so. Nikolas K. Gvosdev is the former editor of the National Interest and a frequent foreign policy commentator in both the print and broadcast media. He is currently on the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect those of the Navy or the U.S. government. His weekly WPR column, The Realist Prism, appears every Friday.

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