To a casual observer it might seem that President Barack Obama’s four-nation tour of East Asia, which took him to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines, came at a time of America’s undisputed global predominance. The visit strengthened existing U.S. military commitments to the region, created some new ones, irritated China, and emboldened American allies to play hardball with Beijing.
In Tokyo, Obama reiterated that the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands—over which Japan and China have been locked in a dispute for decades—were protected under the U.S.-Japan mutual-security treaty: “What is a consistent part of the alliance is that the treaty covers all territory that is administered by Japan,” he said at a press conference on April 23. The metamessage was clear: Japan is not Ukraine, the islands in the East China Sea are not Crimea, and the United States is there to ensure that this stays so.
“The U.S. government is trying to send a firm message to China against any attempt to change the status quo by force,” commented Tsuneo Watanabe, director of policy research at the Tokyo Foundation.
The Chinese got the message and responded accordingly: “We firmly oppose putting the Diaoyu Islands within the scope of the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security,” said a foreign-ministry spokesman in Beijing.
In Seoul, Obama warned...