Despite Multiple Crises, Obama's Asia-Pacific Moves Roll On

The crises just keep on coming for the Obama Administration. Egypt, Syria, Snowden, Russia, Afghanistan, boom boom boom. But the Asia-Pacific Pivot -- from over-engagement with the Islamic world of the Middle East and Central Asia to the rising Asia-Pacific region -- keeps moving forward.

Vice President Joe Biden visits the vast region this week, meeting with top leaders in Singapore and India. And President Barack Obama hosts the president of Vietnam, America's increasingly friendly former bitter enemy, in a White House visit.

By an odd coincidence, while Biden is meeting with top Asia-Pacific officials concerned with the simmering crisis in the South China Sea -- virtually all of which is claimed by China as its sovereign territory -- Washington will roll out the red carpet for Vietnam, which is repeatedly bumping up against Chinese forces not far from its own coast on the South China Sea. (See Pivot archive here.)

On Thursday morning, Obama will welcome Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang to the White House. Obama and President Sang will discuss how to strengthen an emerging partnership on regional strategic issues. Obama will also focus on human rights, climate change, and "the importance of completing a high standard Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement." Which will notably include Vietnam, but not China.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose Liberal Democratic Party won the upper house of the national parliament in weekend elections to go along with the recent return of its longstanding control of the lower house, is expected to pursue more pro-U.S. policies now that the LDP's traditional dominance of Japanese politics is restored. The LDP has been in power in Japan almost continuously since 1955, with the most notable exception the 2009-2012 stint of the more liberal Democratic Party of Japan, which lost power after the Fukushima debacle.

Abe heads to Manila late this week for an official visit with Philippine President Benigno Aquino III to discuss the two countries' "Strategic Partnership." (Japan is one of two official Strategic Partners of the Philippines, the other being the U.S.) The Philippines and Japan are in the midst of tense maritime disputes with China, over islands in the South China Sea and East China Sea, respectively.

Chinese military officials complain that the U.S. is joining with Japan and, increasingly, India in a strategy to encircle and contain China. And that the U.S. is taking advantage of deep disapproval by China's neighbors of its extraordinary claim of sovereignty over virtually the entire South China Sea.

Indeed, Xinhua, the official news agency of the People's Republic of China -- which began as the Red China News Agency -- issued a noteworthy communique late last week:

China-Philippine relations are not expected to turn for the better as overseas Filipinos, apparently emboldened by recent U.S. moves in the region, are planning anti-China protests worldwide.

The New York-based West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) coalition decided to launch protests shortly after Manila and Washington agreed to expand military cooperation.

According to a latest agreement, the United States will build a naval base in Subic Bay in the Philippines to beef up support for Manila and enlarge U.S. military presence in the region. ...

During last week's China-U.S. Strategic and Economic Dialogue, the United States promised that it will take no sides on the South China Sea disputes.

Yet the fact that Washington signed a deal on Subic Bay with the Philippines just days after the conclusion of the strategic dialogue with China puts the U.S. commitment in question. ...

The U.S. moves will certainly hurt its relations with Beijing, which U.S. President Barack Obama has called the most important bilateral ties in the world.

As for the Philippines, pinning wrong hopes on the United States and playing hardball do no good in solving the disputes.

The Chinese government has on various occasions urged all relevant parties to settle South China Sea disputes through dialogues.

Of course, the Chinese approach has been to pursue bilateral negotiations, in which their massive economic and military advantages over each neighbor in isolation gives them enormous leverage. The flagship of the Philippine Navy, for example, is an old U.S. Coast Guard cutter, making it no match for Chinese forces off the shores of the Philippines. But the Spratley Islands are just 125 miles from Subic Bay, the naval base referenced in the Chinese news agency communique. While China pursues specific interests in bilateral relations, the U.S. approach is to keep it vague as to the outcome of any specific negotiation while urging multilateral negotiation, positioning itself as a good guy superpower just out for an "Open Door" approach in the vast region.

Fortunately for the Obama Administration, the only Snowden revelations regarding massive secret U.S. surveillance in the Asia-Pacific pertain to China and Hong Kong, the semi-autonomous Chinese city. That effectively blunted Obama's complaints about Chinese cyber-espionage at last month's U.S.-China summit in California. But as long as there are no embarrassing revelations about massive U.S. surveillance of Asia-Pacific allies and would-be allies, things are lining up well for Obama's strategy.

Meanwhile, contingency planning is well along, as indicated by these revealing remarks by Lieutenant General Terry Robling, commander of U.S. Marine Forces Pacific.

Robling discusses the challenge of delivering mobile forces in an area of responsibility "which comprises over 52 percent of the Earth's surface," fretting some about bringing the Marine amphibious ready group based in San Diego into play with the Australians, then getting into specifics about how his Marines could use the Osprey, an impressive (and occasionally very troubled) tiltrotor aircraft much faster than the helicopters it's replacing, to counter a Chinese move.

"To illustrate hypothetically," he says, "if we were tasked to counter challenges in the South China Sea, such as to bolster defense of Ayungin Shoal, also known internationally as Second Thomas Reef with one of our treaty allies, the Philippines, the U.S. has several options, but not all are efficient or even timely. We could use USAF assets, such as B-2 bombers or B-52 aircraft from Guam, or Navy surface or subsurface assets that are patrolling in the South China Sea, but the location of those assets may not provide timely arrival on station.

"But using the Osprey, we can fly down quickly from Okinawa with a platoon of well-trained Marines or Special Operations Forces, land on difficult terrain or shipping, and perform whatever tasks that may be required in not only a timely but efficient manner."

Robling, incidentally, was head of aviation for the Marine Corps before taking command of Marine forces in the Pacific, and has been deeply involved in drone programs, though the Marines are lesser players in drones compared to the Air Force and Navy.

The development of the new X-47B drone aircraft, which, guided by its own software, made the first landings of an unmanned aircraft on an aircraft carrier on July 10th, gives the U.S. a massive edge in power projection across the Pacific.

The next generation of American drones provides fantastic assets for purposes of intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and targeting. And they will be able to deliver strikes of their own, operating with ranges and speeds that will make the feared Predator drone of today look like a model airplane.

One of the great military advantages of the powerful new carrier-launched drone is the ability to mount relatively low-risk long distance air operations in and around places with vast numbers of land-based anti-ship missiles. While Iran has a lot of anti-ship missiles, the country which has really loaded up on those systems is China, whose pilots are still trying to learn how to land manned aircraft on the country's new aircraft carrier, something the U.S. Navy has been doing with regularity since the 1920s.

Right now, the U.S. appears to have a potent mix of hard and soft power as it pivots to the Pacific. But much can go wrong. Endless problems at the other end of the pivot may yet hamstring things. And more revelations of massive, threatening U.S. surveillance programs, especially of our allies and would-be allies in the Asia-Pacific, would be damaging.

Given how snakebit the Obama Administration has seemed the past several months, it's tempting to expect the worst. But Obama's luck might be about to change again.

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