MEANWHILE, IN THE
SOUTH CHINA SEA …
Washington took a similarly standoffish stance early this year in the dispute between Taiwan, China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam over the South China Sea islands, believed to be rich in gas and oil, and straddling busy shipping routes.
The Philippines — the US’ closest ally in that dispute — eventually pulled its ships out of the hotly contested Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island, 黃岩島), but Chinese vessels have remained.
Manila-based political analyst Ramon Casiple said the disputes have left the US’ allies more aware of their own vulnerabilities and what they can — or cannot — expect from the US.
“America’s treading a very fine line,” Casiple said. “It has to reassure its allies that at the end of the day the US would be there for them.”
He added that the US has made it clear it is not willing to risk a major confrontation in which its options would be limited “to either intervene or lose influence.”
However, there is one other thing it might do in the meantime.
When US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta visited Vietnam in June, he hinted that the US Navy would like access to Cam Ranh, a deep-water port facing the contested waters of the South China Sea. Hanoi’s counter-proposal? Lift a ban on selling it lethal weapons.
TAIWAN: LEFT OUT
IN THE COLD
Best friends forever? Not so much.
As China has become stronger and more important to the US economy, Washington has become extremely wary of engaging Taiwan as a full security partner — a big pullback from the 1950s and the 1960s, when the two had a formal defense treaty and the US based thousands of troops on what it considered a — if not the — key forward base to keep China at bay.
Today, cooperation is limited to some intelligence sharing, the training of Taiwanese air force personnel in the US, occasional security consultations and very restricted arms sales — definitely not the kind of advanced F-16 aircraft and diesel submarines the Taiwanese military really wants.
Even so, political scientist Alexander Huang (黃介正) of Taipei’s Tamkang University says Taiwan can play a role in Obama’s pivot — but only if Washington decides to make a clear commitment.
THE KOREAS: STEALTH
Ah, North Korea.
It has a new leader, about whom, typically, the world knows almost nothing, a nuclear weapons/ballistic missile program that it likes to trot out every so often to raise regional tensions and a belligerent attitude toward the US.
However, Obama has a friend in Seoul.
Back in the 1950s, the US fought on Seoul’s side in the Korean War — and contemplated attacking China with nuclear weapons before it was over. China still supports the North and Washington continues to have about 28,500 troops in the South.
South Korea also buys about 70 percent of its weapons from the US and a big payday for a US company might come soon after Obama’s inauguration, when South Korea is expected to formally announce the winner in a US$7.6 billion project to build 60 sophisticated fighter jets.
The deal will be South Korea’s biggest-ever weapons procurement. The top contender is believed to be Lockheed Martin’s stealthy F-35 Joint Strike Fighter — which after a long run of development problems and cost overruns could certainly use a multi-billion dollar boost. Boeing and European aerospace giant EADS are also in the running.