Amid tensions in the South China Sea and new alarm about a China-Russia alignment, President Obama's speech at West Point sends some confusing signals to the countries of Indo-Pacific Asia.
To be fair, the speech was not meant to be principally about Asia. It was intended to draw a final line under the US military commitments to Afghanistan and Iraq. It perhaps was also meant to help clarify some of Obama's recent off-the-cuff remarks, including the ones during this media conference last month in Japan, about the limits of US reliance on military force in solving global security problems.
Yet a broader reading is unavoidable. In the continued absence of a long-promised National Security Strategy from Washington, the speech will be studied closely at home and internationally for its formulations about US policy more generally. Some observers have already gone so far as to see in it the contours of a new foreign policy doctrine based on the limits of US power.
And the view from Asia? There is little in this lengthy pronouncement that will ease misgivings among regional partners and some allies about the US commitment to the region's security.
The speech sits uneasily with the idea of a rebalance to Asia. For a start, it could be read as giving terrorism and human rights issues a higher priority than maintaining peace and stability in the very region that Obama himself has claimed to be central to the world's future.
It also sends out mixed messages to China and other Asian countries about what really constitutes an American core interest. On the one hand, President Obama says America will fight only for its core interests and defines the security of allies as being one of those interests.
Yet the speech fails to refer to deterrence against intimidation or aggression. And it says almost nothing about specific Asian security challenges like North Korea, Chinese assertiveness or the risk of armed miscalculation between China and other maritime states. It is also not clear regarding how much support countries that are not US treaty allies, such as Vietnam, can expect when they find themselves under extreme pressure from powerful neighbours.
The speech suggests that the US would be willing to fight for its treaty allies, such as Japan. But America would be much more reluctant to threaten war over issues that 'push the world in a more dangerous direction but do not directly threaten us'. In this kind of situation, which happens to be a neat description of what is happening in the South China Sea, the US would seek to mobilise allies and partners to take action together, with force as a last resort and only then wielded multilaterally.
Obama's main points on the South China Sea come across as somewhat contradictory, and almost admissions of US weakness. Obama's speech makes clear that any solution to maritime territorial disputes must be based on norms and rules. Thus he highlights that the US is supporting Southeast Asian nations as they 'negotiate a code of conduct with China'.
This does not mean much. Every honest diplomat in Asia privately knows that the code is an ever-receding mirage and has been for the past 12 years: China will keep delaying agreement while it gets on with unilaterally changing facts in the water.
At the same time, Obama points out that America's failure to ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea means the US 'can't try to resolve problems in the South China Sea'. This, however, is more a lament than a useful basis for policy. After all, the President knows that this situation won't change, since the roadblock lies with Republican senators he has no hope of budging.
So having just emphasised the limits of US military power, the President highlights (and arguably exaggerates) the limits of its diplomatic and moral influence too. I am not sure how such a confession is meant to reassure anyone, let alone Vietnam, the Philippines or China's other smaller rival claimants.
Of course, much of the West Point speech was about sending honourable signals to American audiences: bringing closure to a decade of foreign wars, bloody and un-won, and prudently sheathing military power in a scabbard of diplomacy, values and economic renewal.
But the low priority it seems to place on Asia and this region's core strategic problems will needlessly sustain doubts about US commitment to the rebalance, announced so confidently in Canberra just a few years ago.
Image courtesy of the White House.