WASHINGTON – As the United States looks to “pivot” its strategic policy to Asia, the Obama administration’s response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea has sent reverberations into East Asia, casting doubt on its commitment to prevent aggression from China or North Korea.
Victor Cha, professor of government at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Beijing and Pyongyang haven’t missed the U.S. “capitulation” by President Barack Obama to Putin’s assertiveness in Crimea.
And there have been signs Putin may not stop there.
Cha told Asia Times that Putin is a “threat to Asia,” even though, like the U.S., the Russian leader is showing his assertiveness in East Asia through developing increased trade and military ties.
Last June, Putin, in a speech at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, announced a plan to boost Russia’s economic growth in the Asia-Pacific region rather than in Russia’s traditional markets in Europe.
His speech at the time represented a new direction for Russia, which for decades had played down strategic and economic interests in the Asia-Pacific region.
Putin envisions massive investments in infrastructure and upgrading the Trans-Siberian Railway that links his country to the Pacific.
Putin also is looking to increase investments in energy.
Russia’s new assertiveness in the Far East poses potential conflicts as China views the East and South China Seas as its domain, coupled with increased U.S. economic and military interests in the region.
Nevertheless, Moscow has emphasized it wants cooperation with China.
“China does not worry us,” Putin said. “China and Russia will cooperate on many questions.”
“Russia shares the current understanding that the rise of China comes at the expense of the United States and the West,” according to Fiona Hill of the Washington-based Brookings Institution.
The reality, she said, is that Asia, for Russia, will remain a sideshow in its foreign and security policy.
“For all its posturing about turning Russia into a hub of intra-Asian trade and cooperation, Moscow’s strategic focus is still stuck on the West – its population is mostly in the West, its economic ties are mostly to the West, and its official military doctrine remains fixated on the United States and NATO,” she said.
She added that the focus on the West will remain for the foreseeable future, since old patterns will be hard to break.
Georgetown University’s Cha, however, said leaders in China and North Korea have seen that Moscow clearly has a greater commitment to Ukraine than the U.S. They may reason that if they act like Putin, U.S. reaction will be the same as it was toward Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
“Crimea shows that power matters less than commitment,” Cha said. “And as powerful as the United States is, it is not as committed to Crimea as Russia. The danger of Putin’s action is the ‘demonstration effect’ – it sets a bad precedent for others to follow.”
Cha said the bottom line is that Putin got what he wanted and was able to “pull off a fait accompli against Crimea based on the perception of a lack of U.S. resolve or commitment.”
“What is to stop others from thinking the same way?” Cha asked. “Why shouldn’t (Chinese President) Xi Jinping think the same way regarding the claim of another air defense identification zone (ADIZ)? Or why shouldn’t (North Korean leader) Kim Jong-un feel that a fait accompli action in the West Sea would work to his advantage?”
Obama recently had B-52s flown in what China regards as its ADIZ over the South China Sea, but civilian airlines were directed to inform Chinese authorities of their presence.
As for North Korea, its leadership saw Obama’s reaction and immediately fired a number of short-range missiles and initiated artillery fire into South Korea.
The concern is how to prevent others in Asia from acting like Putin.
“The answer is to create a strategic environment that effectively deters China or North Korea from ever considering such actions,” Cha said.
One approach Cha recommended is closer U.S.-Japan military cooperation, including the right of collective self-defense and revision of defense guidelines.
Even with the military cooperation, leadership in Japan and South Korea have shown skepticism over U.S. security commitments, prompting them to consider more assertive military buildups, including the prospect of making their own longer-range missiles and nuclear warheads.
For some time, military relationships between the U.S., Japan and South Korea have created uncertainty in Tokyo and Seoul.
“If North Korea sees a rift among the three countries, then they are not creating the right strategic environment to prevent Putin-like actions in Asia.” Cha said.
However, before that can happen, a long-simmering dispute between Tokyo and Seoul also would need mending, although Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is attempting to do just that.
Abe has complied with Seoul’s demand to apologize for Japan’s forcible World War II conscription of sex slaves of Koreans, known as comfort women.
“Reconciling Japan-South Korean relations is good for both countries in terms of their own security to prepare for the next North Koran provocation,” Cha said. “In the longer term, it is important for setting the strategic environment that avoids a Crimea in Asia.”