Pivot Problems

What Washington Should Concede in Asia

 A Chinese naval guard stands beside a guided missile destroyer in Hong Kong, April 30, 2004.
A Chinese naval guard stands beside a guided missile destroyer in Hong Kong, April 30, 2004. (Courtesy Reuters)

The United States’ promises to protect its allies in East Asia underwrite the region’s security. Yet whispers about the credibility of those promises are growing louder. China, meanwhile, continues to assert its claims to disputed islands in the East China and South China Seas through so-called salami tactics: making one provocative move after another, as if taking a salami slice by slice. Each provocation slightly enhances China’s position but is too small to merit a forceful response. Many commentators argue that the United States must enhance deterrence by making clearer and stronger commitments to its allies.

But the United States will not solve its problems in East Asia by declaring itself in lockstep with its allies. For guidance, U.S. policymakers should instead look to a previous case that the United States managed successfully: West Berlin during the Cold War. In that case, a major power -- the Soviet Union -- was also pushing, pressuring, and trying to divide the United States from its allies. Washington solved the problem by standing firm in the face of both sides. The Kennedy administration clarified the vital interests that it would fight to protect, while explaining to its West German ally that the United States would not fight to achieve every German goal in the standoff.

POWER PLAY

In the coming years, territorial disputes between China and its neighbors will create tension, crisis, and possible conflict in East Asia. In the South China Sea, Beijing asserts sovereignty over an area (enclosed by the so-called nine-dashed line) in which six nearby countries -- Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam -- maintain competing territorial claims of their own. In the East China Sea, China has claimed sovereignty over the Japan-controlled Senkaku Islands (which the Chinese call the Diaoyu Islands).

It will prove difficult to settle these disputes through negotiations; the countries involved have issued a bewildering tangle of competing legal and historical claims, and the contested islets have become a rallying cry for nationalist politicians. Moreover, many of the territories in question come with rich fishing grounds and are thought to lie near substantial oil and natural gas deposits.

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