Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

In frenemy territory: Obama’s decision to police the Pacific

Activists holding Chinese and Taiwanese flags are arrested by Japanese police officers after landing on Uotsuri Island, one of the islands of Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese, in East China Sea Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2012. Regional tensions flared on the emotional anniversary of Japan’s World War II surrender as activists from China and South Korea used Wednesday’s occasion to press rival territorial claims, prompting 14 arrests by Japanese authorities. The 14 people had traveled by boat from Hong Kong to the disputed islands controlled by Japan but also claimed by China and Taiwan.

Masataka Morita/AP

U.S. Marines are packing for Australia. The navy is sending its stealthy new gunboats to Singapore. And the hottest American F-22 warplanes deployed in Guam.

Barack Obama is done with the nation-building in the quagmires of Iraq and Afghanistan, where hundreds of thousands of "boots-on-the-ground" slogged for years in unpopular, perhaps unwinnable, wars. Instead, America is making a Pacific pivot to face China, and gearing up for a new challenge – managing a rival world power that is neither enemy nor ally.

Mr. Obama's focus on the Asia-Pacific – outlined in his landmark "Priorities for 21st Century Defence" – comes amid the evident rise of China's power and influence, and growing tension in the region.

Story continues below advertisement

Earlier this week, there were huge demonstrations in China following provocative "landings" by Japanese nationalists on disputed islands in the East China Sea. So far, confrontations in the hotly contested South and East China Seas have been limited the occasional ramming of ships, firing of fire hoses and some arrests. But as tiny protruding rocks and reefs, and the oil and gas riches beneath disputed territorial seas, become military outposts, America's response to China's confrontations with Japan and other U.S. allies is likely to be tested.

When Washington called for all sides to talk about the recent island dispute, for example, an undiplomatic shouting match ensued. "We can completely shout to the U.S.: 'Shut up,'" warned the semi-official Peoples Daily, newspaper of the Communist party.

Only slightly less rudely, a pair of senior U.S. diplomats in Beijing were called in by the Chinese Foreign ministry, and told Washington must "respect China's sovereignty and territorial integrity."

Mr. Obama's pivot encompasses far more than dealing with China. The U.S. already counts South Korea, Japan, Australia and Taiwan as close allies; now, its Hawaii-born, Indonesian-raised, California-educated president is building closer ties with Indonesia and India.

More than a military doctrine, Mr. Obama's "pivot" is a multi-faceted strategy by the first occupant of the Oval Office to call himself a "Pacific president." It's a wide-ranging attempt to shape the entire region into a vast, vibrant, interconnected "pacific" half of the planet.

"We are here to stay," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the East-West Center in Honolulu shortly before Mr. Obama unveiled the pivot earlier this year. "What will happen in Asia in the years ahead will have an enormous impact on our nation's future. We cannot afford to sit on the sidelines and leave it to others to determine our future for us."

It's an intricate dance, however, requiring far more subtlety than the post-Second-World-War era, which pitted America and its allies, including Canada, against clearly-defined enemies.

Story continues below advertisement

For a half-century, it was were the Soviet Union, which had the potential to unleash nuclear Armageddon. Since 2001, the disparate evil of Islamic jihadists justified – more or less – the so-called global "war on terror." Mr. Obama has dropped that phrase and wants to dramatically shift strategic focus. But this time he doesn't have a clear threat or obvious justification for the costs.

The vast sums required to project power across the Pacific may face tough opposition in Congress, where protecting local bases often trumps the needs of expeditionary forces. And while China remains a single-party state run by communists, it is also a vital engine of international enterprise, a behemoth of manufacturing with a seemingly inexhaustible demand for oil and commodities.

It also has its own, rapidly growing military power. Last year, China's navy began sea trials of its first, relatively small and so-far plane-less, aircraft carrier. More ominously for the roving U.S. navy, China has also been testing huge new shore-based anti-ship missiles (called "area-denial" missiles).

The task ahead, then, is to bulk up without antagonizing China, which has sparred with the U.S. before over arms sales to Taiwan and a nasty collision between a U.S. spy plane and a Chinese fighter.

"At the end of the day, the purpose of U.S. strategy is to win the peace, is to have a co-operative relationship with China," says Michael Green, a senior analyst at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former member of George W. Bush's National Security Council. "But you can't do that without forward presence, and you can't do it unless you have credibility on the deterrence side."

Unfortunately, from Beijing deterrence can look like encirclement.

Story continues below advertisement

They see tens of thousands of American troops in South Korea, American spy planes lurking off China's coasts, 21st-century versions of the gunboats that humiliated Chinese dynasties 150 years ago in Singapore – plus a carrier battle group forward-deployed in Japan (the only one with a home port outside the U.S.) and a vow from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to shift 60 per cent of the navy's ships and submarines to the Pacific.

They can certainly expect more of America's 11 carrier battle groups cruising in the Pacific. Soon, new long-range, pilotless reconnaissance drones will fly from those carriers. Bomber versions will follow. U.S. war planners have also been leaking a new concept called "Air-Sea Battle" – a vague doctrine of combining the Air Force's long-range, deep-strike bombers with the naval cruise missiles and warplanes from aircraft carriers. No "enemy" is specified, but the doctrine seems tailor-made for taking out industrial and military targets deep inside China.

Clearly, projecting power to reassure allies without seeming aggressive will require considerable strategic finesse.

"We talk about 'Air-Sea Battle,'" James Cartwright, former vice-chairman of the Joint Staff, told the Joint Warfighting Conference hosted by the US Naval Institute last spring as the full scope of the Pacific pivot was emerging. "It's neither a doctrine nor a scenario … worst of all, Air-Sea Battle is demonizing China [and] that's not in anybody's interest."

That's definitely true for Canada. Indeed, the Obama pivot adds a new complication to a Canadian defence policy still rooted in the Cold War and an already-modest military facing savage cuts. Canada's army has long looked – and deployed – East and our navy has been focused on the Atlantic. But as America turns to the Pacific, it may need to follow, if only to maintain some ongoing relevance to our biggest ally.

For now, the impact of the Pacific pivot depends on Mr. Obama winning four more years in the White House, that second term when presidents traditionally focus on foreign affairs – and their place in history.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct Licensing Options
As of December 20, 2017, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this resolved by the end of January 2018. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to