The Eagle is Back in Asia

General Douglas MacArthur before a landing in the Lingayen Gulf, Philippines, January 9, 1945

General Douglas MacArthur before a landing in the Lingayen Gulf, Philippines, January 9, 1945 (Life/Carl Mydans)

In the gloomy days of December 1941, when Pearl Harbor had just been attacked by Japan and Nazi-Germany had conquered virtually all of Central and Western Europe, there was a American general in the Philippines bidding goodbye to his friends. “I shall return,” he promised them.

Three years later, Douglas MacArthur did return. He reconquered the Philippines and went on to help the United States win the war in the Pacific in 1945.

More than sixty years later, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has made a similar statement in Foreign Policy magazine where she writes about “America’s Pacific Century.” Even if she doesn’t articulate a policy yet, it’s clear that the United States are on the verge of abandoning Richard Nixon’s Guam Doctrine in Asia.

The thirty-seventh president of the United States expected allies to fend for themselves and would only come to their aid if it was absolutely necessary. Clinton suggests that America’s allies in the Pacific needn’t be able to defend themselves in the event of armed conflict anymore but can become part of Washington’s security umbrella that aims to contain China’s rise in Southeast Asia.

With the United States preparing to pull out of Afghanistan and Iraq, it can afford to try to encircle China with its friends in Asia, ranging from Japan and South Korea in the north to Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia and Australia in the east to India in the southwest. All of these nations are threatened by China’s mounting assertiveness in the region. Washington’s objective is clear: it doesn’t want to compete with China for influence in the Atlantic world so it seeks to confine it to the Pacific.

President Barack Obama visited four Asian partners in November of last year and Hillary Clinton has subsequently traveled to many more. The president will also visit Australia, a critical partner in the effort to balance against Chinese encroachment in Southeast Asia, next month.

This containment strategy seems to signal a paradigm shift away from Obama’s aim to “strategically reassure” China in the early days of his administration. The shift has occurred for two reasons.

In the Middle East, the United States have abandoned the neoconservative ambition of forcefully democratizing states while in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the terrorist network Al Qaeda has been disrupted if not virtually destroyed. The American public is tired of the Afghan campaign but anxious that China might surpass the United States as the world’s economic superpower in mere decades. Containment seems an appropriate strategy for the imminent cold war of this century.

If that’s the strategy, it’s a far cry from the early days of the administration when it was hoping to establish close relations with Beijing and even prepared to court Iran for stability in Afghanistan. It’s not entirely unexpected however. Just as America hesitated to be drawn into conflict with other great powers in MacArthur’s days, once it chose to engage, it did so wholeheartedly. And so the eagle is back in Asia — again.