Obama’s Silence In SOTU Means No War In East Asia – OpEd


While the U.S.’ achievements in Iran, Syria and Afghanistan were highly praised in President Obama’s State of the Union 2014 (SOTU) [Note 1], the so-called tension in East Asia and even the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) were not mentioned at all. On the next day, the Tokyo-based The Diplomat immediately published an article to ask whether Obama “has abandoned the Pivot” to Asia:

“ … the message wasn’t pretty …… he couldn’t make room for even a sentence in his speech …… his neglect of these issues … brings the rebalance to Asia into question …… mounting questions over whether or not the U.S. will remain committed to the region despite budget cuts ……” [Note 2]

Right now, there is only one person who has the final say on whether there could be a combat in this region, namely, the President of the United States of America. On the one hand, neither Shinzo Abe nor Benigno Aquino can make any real move without the backup of the master of the White House. On the other hand, the Chinese helmsman rulers who have been taught by Deng Xiao-ping to pursue “peaceful rise” and steady economic growth have no reason to ignite any fire. The attitude and judgment of the incumbent leader of the U.S., rather than certain analysts’ scary talks of military deployment moves, should be the observers’ primary focus.

Obama’s message to Tokyo, Manila and Beijing is very clear: be quiet and do something meaningful and concrete to hammer out a compromise. His emphasis on diplomacy and the silence in the SOTU on East and South East Asia are the loudest indications of the American neutrality and his intention to cool down the enthusiasm of those who drum up the heat for a clash. It is not an ordinary clash. Professor Samuel Huntington warned of the “fault line wars” in his 1997 book “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order” that

“Fault line wars … are by definition between two groups which are part of larger cultural entities. In a fault line war … Group A1 is fighting Group B1 and each will attempt to expand the war and mobilize support from civilization kin groups, A2, A3, A4, and B2, B3, and B4 … hence the internationalization of fault line conflicts.” [Note 3]

While China itself is a civilization entity and state (though Iran and Russia may be dragged in), Japan, the Philippines and the U.S. (and even Australia) tend to see themselves as a camp or group sharing the belief in democracy and the like. Once this war has been ignited, there would be no return. “Fault line wars are off-again-on-again wars that can flame up into massive violence and then sputter down into low-intensity warfare or sullen hostility only to flame up once again [Note 3].” What could be worse is that aside from the formal combats in East and South East Asia, bloody wild cat fights may take place in cities like Singapore, Sidney, or San Francisco between the patriotic Japanese, Filipino and Chinese communities. International collaboration on all fronts would also be gravely hindered.

Further to the National Security Adviser Susan Rice’s clear message in her Georgetown University speech on “America’s Future in Asia” that when “it comes to China, we seek to operationalize a new model of major power relations” [Note 4], the White House’s flexible-to-negotiation and firmly-committed-to-peace attitudes were re-stipulated in the two exactly the same headlines displayed on Army Times and Navy Times simultaneously — “Obama emphasizes diplomacy to strengthen security” [Note 5]. The U.S. Embassy in London also pinpoints Obama’s foreign policy orientation towards peaceful negotiation without ambiguity: “U.S. leadership, the president said, ‘is defined not just by our defense against threats, but by the enormous opportunities to do good and promote understanding around the globe — to forge greater cooperation, to expand new markets, to free people from fear and want.’ [Note 6]”

While both Tokyo and Manila may want to drag Washington into the region, there is no justification for the Americans to die for several tiny islands far beyond the remote Pacific Ocean [Note 7]. Unless there is an imminent and direct threat to the American interests or territories, a face off against China is dangerous, unjustified and costly. In the wake of the rising 10 year Treasury bond yield doubling up from 1.47% on June 1, 2013 to 3.01% on Jan 3, 2014 [Note 8], the swelling Federal Government deficit would be aggravated by the mounting spending on war, let alone the negative impacts on international trade.

If the wonder of “Japan as Number One” [Note 9] in the 1970s-80s could be brought down by the exchange rate appreciation of the Yen, the threat of the Soviet Union could be bankrupted by the late President Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars strategy in the 1980s, and the dream of replacing the USD by EURO could be turned in a nightmare by financial derivatives in the 2000s, why not try something non-military to deal with China?

[Note 1]:  The White House, President Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address, Jan 28, 2014

[Note 2]:  The Diplomat, Has Obama abandoned the Pivot to Asia? Jan 29, 2014

[Note 3]: Huntington, Samuel P., (1997), The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, pages 252-4, New York: Touchstone.

[Note 4]: FPIF, Susan Rice Attempts to Solve the Japan-China Deadlock, Dec 11, 2013

[Note 5]:  Army Times, State of the Union: Obama emphasizes diplomacy to strengthen security, Jan 28, 2013.

NavyTimes, State of the Union: Obama emphasizes diplomacy to strengthen security, Jan 28, 2013.

[Note 6]:  London U.S. Embassy, Obama cites U.S. Diplomatic Goals in State of the Union Address.

[Note 7]:  China Daily Mail, The Philippines and China will have a deal rather than a fight, Nov 27, 2013

[Note 8]:  U.S. Department of the Treasury, Daily Treasury Yield Curve Rates.

[Note 9]:  Vogel, Ezra (1979), Japan as Number One: Lessons for America, Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Keith K C Hui

Keith K C Hui is a Chinese University of Hong Kong graduate, a Fellow of The Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (UK), a former Manager (Asset Management) at HK Monetary Authority and now a retired businessman; and the author of “Helmsman Ruler: China’s Pragmatic Version of Plato’s Ideal Political Succession System in The Republic”.

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