Mr. Obama’s Asian Vacation

US President Barack Obama ended his four-nation tour of Asia last week, insisting, yet again, that the US is not out to confront China. “Our goal is not to contain China,” he said at a press conference in Manila, just before he left. “Our goal is to make sure international rules and norms are respected, and that includes in the area of international disputes.”

Come on, Mr. President, what else do we call it if not containment? In Japan, Obama reiterated a US commitment to defend Japan – including the little islands that Japan calls the Senkakus and China calls Diaoyu. “Our commitment to Japan’s security is absolute and article five [of the security treaty] covers all territories under Japan’s administration, including the Senkaku islands,” Obama said. He apparently went even further than Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had hoped.

Then it was off to Malaysia to bolster strategic ties in the face of China’s push to create facts in the water by laying claim to 90 per cent of the South China Sea using bluster, vague historical precedents and its “nine-dash line” map – a massive U-shaped figuration that covers vast maritime areas claimed by other Southeast Asian nations.

In Kuala Lumpur, Obama virtually ignored the continued persecution of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, gave the government a free pass on gerrymandering constituencies to keep itself in power and made no mention of other rights abuses. Instead, Obama praised Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, saying that he “came in as a reformer and one who is committed to it, and I am going to continue to encourage him as a friend and a partner to making progress on that front.”

In other words, the strategic relationship with Malaysia trumps human rights for Obama and gives Najib a chance to bask in the glow at a time when hardliners within his own party have been relentlessly sniping at him.

There was talk in KL of the US-backed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations, to which Malaysia is a party, but the real point was to shore up yet another friendship in the region against Chinese bullying. Malaysia has long had quiet but close defense ties with the United States even during the days of Mahathir Mohamad’s vocally nationalistic premiership, when US troops still underwent jungle warfare training in Malaysia. These days, while Vietnam and the Philippines grab most of the headlines for facing up to China, Malaysia also stands to lose from the nine-dash line encroachment on its Exclusive Economic Zone within the South China Sea and its claims to part of the disputed Spratley islands.

The final piece of the puzzle, of course, was the US formally returning to the Philippines with a pledge to base forces in the country on a temporary and rotating basis. The Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, signed Monday and negotiated over the last eight months, allows the US to station troops on Philippine bases, but stops short of reestablishing the vast US facilities that were closed in 1992 when the Philippine Senate failed to ratify a bases accord between the two countries.

Coming at the end of the Cold War and with the Soviet Union gone, the US was only too willing to be rid of its expensive Subic Bay naval base and other facilities at the time. During contentious talks, Philippine nationalists railed against imperialism, while government negotiators effectively priced themselves out of the market by believing the US would pay virtually any amount to stay. When the Senate rejected the pact, then-President Corazon Aquino was shocked, but it seemed a good thing for the country, signaling an end to its long dependence on Washington’s rental of the bases for much-needed hard currency.

Unfortunately, the Philippines still needs the US – as was painfully witnessed when US forces provided the backbone of immediate relief and aid following the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan in late 2013. In confronting China’s threat to its South China Sea claims, the Philippines has little to offer other than bombast and a few token garrisons it can barely resupply. In this situation, the US looks pretty good. The new agreement also does not require Philippine Senate approval, and nationalist thundering is likely to be muted, given that Chinese Coast Guard vessels regularly patrol waters considered by Manila to be sovereign territory.

In March, Indonesia – another country being assiduously courted by Washington – quietly but officially stated that China’s nine-dash line encroaches on its territory off the coast of Borneo. In recent years, Indonesia has stayed above the fray as a non-claimant, seeking to negotiate a settlement to the dispute. That no longer appears to be the case.

“Indonesia is dismayed,” armed forces chief Gen. Moeldoko wrote in an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal on April 24, “that China has included parts of the Natuna Islands within the nine-dash line, thus apparently claiming a segment of Indonesia's Riau Islands province as its territory.”

With the US also talking about stationing some forces in Thailand and Vietnam, how can the moves unveiled on Obama’s trip be seen as anything other than a quiet policy of containment in the face of China’s territorial claims?

In 1947, George Kennan, the author of the US containment policy directed at the Soviet Union, wrote, “The main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.” One goal of the policy was “the gradual mellowing of Soviet power.”

Few would expect China-US relations to reach the state of open hostility seen between the Soviet Union and the US during the Cold War, but the pieces are falling into place. Just after the new agreement was signed in Manila Monday, China’s Xinhua news agency blasted back, saying the Philippines is a “troublemaker in the South China Sea,” and warned the US that it was on the wrong path.

It is hard to predict where this will lead, but two facts seem to suggest a collision course. For one, China is being belligerently expansionist by trying to use historical mumbo jumbo to grab vast amounts of maritime territory. For another, Washington is trying to contain Beijing’s aggression. This is a recipe for long-term tension, or worse.

This article originally appeared in Edge Review, a weekly digital magazine covering Southeast Asia.