THE TERRIBLE TYPHOON: The U.S. Steps into a Storm

 Hong Kong – I happened to be in this glorious international city (special administrative region of China) when the terrible typhoon hit the Philippines right in the gut.  It was then that one appreciates how the reports of the eclipse of the U.S. role in Asia have been greatly exaggerated.

In fact, the value for all in Asia of the continued U.S. military and political presence in this geopolitically pivotal region has never been more evident. Even China must realize that were the Americans to withdraw tomorrow – inconceivable, but desired by some in China perhaps – the consequences would be destabilizing even to China.

My friends in Beijing (and I view some of my media and university colleagues on the Mainland as among my best friends, and from who I learn so much), please take note: As the aircraft carrier group of the USS George Washington anchored off the Philippines coast midweek, carrying 21 good-to-go-helicopters and an overall crew of no less than 5,000, the Japanese government was putting together its own force for the international relief operation. At this writing, this involved aircraft, naval vessels, very well trained medical personnel and perhaps a thousand troops for relief, courtesy of the Abe government.


Make no mistake about it.  This is the worst natural disaster since the 2004 Indonesia earthquake and resulting tsunami. The International Red Cross reports that so far 22,000 people are missing and many thousands have been killed by winds and flooding from this extraordinarily vicious typhoon. The super-storm went on to Vietnam after leveling parts of the Philippines but here in Hong Kong we only felt peripheral rainfall and barely any serious wind.

But please note the telling sequence of the rescue events.

First in to help out on any serious scale is: the United States.

Then – and only then – do the Japanese start to come in.

This notable one-two sequencing will remain in place as a predictable feature of Asia.  Beijing please note: Japan will not be invading you any time in the foreseeable future – at least not in my lifetime. This in part will be because the United States in never going to invade China.  The height of our maniacal invasion “stupidity syndrome” was Iraq. And that won’t happen again for a very long time.

The U.S. Security Treaty with Japan thus works two ways. It protects the Japanese from external threat and over the decades has permitted their economy to flourish without the encumbrance of crippling defense outlays. But the treaty also implicitly obliges Japan not to embark on adventurism, into which the U.S. would perforce be drawn.

So, our friends in Tokyo please note: The tolerance of U.S. public opinion for intervention on your side in the event of over-reaction to the islands dispute with China (Diaoyu Islands, Chinese version; Senkaku in the Japanese) will be close to zero. Just review how very weakly the recent opinion polls in America backed a military strike on Damascus.

My view is that Japan in relative tandem with the U.S. is no threat to China. But should Chinese policy somehow push a wedge between Tokyo and Washington, the big loser will be Beijing. Japanese forces quantitatively are inferior to China’s but qualitatively far more modern. Should China push the worrisomely nationalistic government of Shinzo Abe into military action over Diaoyu, the unintended consequence will be a destabilized East Asia and an unleashed Japan – in other words, a real major mess, and just maybe the end of decades of relative peace and prosperity in Asia.

Note that, as of this writing, the sum total of the typhoon-relief contribution of China, at loggerheads with Manila over another island dispute, is said to be about $100,000.

This is not a typo.

To be sure, in five to ten years, this won’t remotely be the case. China’s rise, on the whole very welcome indeed, is continuing and so will its ripening military profile and capability. But full realization of the Historical Chinese Return is an event whose full culmination is well down the road. It is not by any means a fact now.

Let us then focus on the reality of the now, at least for the time being.  Even China needs the United States (for all its flaws and mistakes) to remain a major presence in Asia. In fact, maybe Beijing needs such as much as anyone. But do not blame the Chinese for not wanting to admit it. They are only human, after all. They are proud – and given their 5,000 years in existence, have every right to be.

For the past two weeks LMU Distinguished Scholar Tom Plate has been in Southeast Asia promoting his new book In The Middle of the Future – and meeting with LMU alumni, most notably in Jakarta. The veteran U.S. journalist and columnist is the author of the four-volume Giants of Asia series. © Pacific Perspectives Media Center and Asia Media at LMU, 2012.

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