Is Obama ready for a stare-down with China?

China's provocation of Japan over the Senkaku Islands shows a need for Obama to be ready for a crisis in Asia. He must buck up Japan and send a clear signal to Bejing.

After nearly two years in office, President Obama remains untested as a commander in chief during a tense standoff – his own Cuban missile crisis, for instance, or Iranian hostage-taking, Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, or 9/11.

But he'd best prepare for such an encounter in Asia.

Last month, China bared its fangs at America’s chief Asian ally, Japan. Beijing appeared to precipitate a crisis with its weak neighbor when the captain of a Chinese fishing boat deliberately rammed two Japanese Coast Guard vessels near the Senkaku Islands.

For more than a century, Japan has had clear legal control of those rocky, uninhabited islands near Okinawa. But that has not stopped China from recently seeking ownership of them for offshore oil or to show everyone – especially the US Navy – who’s the new boss in Asian waters.

Beijing surprisingly escalated the incident after Japan detained the captain. China retaliated by halting critical mineral exports to Japan and arrested four Japanese visiting China. Even before the incident, the Chinese Navy had been swarming near the islands.

After two weeks of hostile reactions, Japan finally capitulated Sept. 24, releasing the captain. But not before other Asian nations saw just how much of a bully China has become.

The United States praised Tokyo’s decision as a diplomatic necessity – but not before quietly stating that the defense treaty with Japan would require the US military to defend the islands if China took them by force.

The crisis still lingers. China and Japan are demanding apologies. And Tokyo is considering whether to station its regular troops near the Senkaku Islands. The incident is thus a wake-up call for Mr. Obama to prepare for China again flexing its muscles in a dangerous way.

Obama’s national security strategy, however, is to primarily focus on rebuilding the US. Indeed, in September, when China protested about a planned military exercise in the Yellow Sea with a US aircraft carrier, the US backed down rather than risk Chinese anger. And Obama didn’t do much to persuade Beijing that its ally, North Korea, was guilty of sinking a South Korean naval ship last March, killing 46 sailors.

In July, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton did take a legal stand against China’s bold claims to a set of disputed islands in the South China Sea, saying the claims must be resolved with multilateral diplomacy. But the US hasn’t done much about that since then.

President Clinton was tested by China in 1996 after it lobbed missiles near Taiwan. He sent two aircraft carriers into the area in a show of defense for the island nation, which China claims as its own.

But these days China sees the US as weak. The American economy is stagnant. Many of the top Obama officials, such as Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, are leaving the administration. The president wants major cuts in the Pentagon. US forces began to leave Iraq this year, and Obama plans to start a US retreat from Afghanistan next year.

Since 2009, China has become more assertive in Asia. It recently told its neighbors that they are “small countries” while China is a “large country” – and that they should not expect an equal relationship.

This bluntness only raised fears of confrontation, especially as China expands it naval reach. Japan now wonders if it can count on the US in a crisis. It is considering a boost in its military spending. Over the past decade, Japan’s defense budget has declined about 5 percent – while China’s spending on its forces has soared.

Obama can help Japan by encouraging it to raise its military spending and invest in more defensive weapons. Such US advice is often needed to overcome decades of Japanese reluctance to become a military power again.

Next month, Japan will host a summit of Asian and Pacific countries. This will provide an opportunity for Obama to make clear where the US stands on China’s coercive actions and his own readiness to respond to a crisis in the region.

China must be persuaded that there is plenty of room in Asia for big nations to work together for security and prosperity. Those nations include Australia, India, the US, Japan, Indonesia, and yes, China.

But until China sees its role as a benign benefactor in Asia, a US president should be ready to check China if it tries to strong-arm its neighbors in an imperialist way or hold them hostage to threats.

If other Asian nations can’t look to the US for backup, they would be well advised to start looking more to themselves.

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