There is a conceit inherent in being professionally modest; in feigning a departure from the stage only to insist on pulling the strings from behind the props. Thus there is a certain underhandedness about leading from behind. J. Berkshire Miller, writing in the National Interest, put his finger on the fatal hidden contradiction of the Obama foreign policy. Obama wanted to relinquish the wheel while having the last say on everything. In particular, he affirmed the great power status of China, but forgot about Japan. It was as if a traffic cop, having vacated the intersection, neglected to remember that collisions would be the outcome of switching off the signal lights.
Everyone wanted to move forward. When the Japanese prime minister visited the Yasukuni shrine as part of his campaign to re-introduce Japan unapologetically on the world stage, Obama was displeased because that would irk China. And when China reacted in the Senkakus, Obama was displeased because things weren’t going according to his plan. At no point did he see the cascade of events as started by the White House itself.
And this gradual widening between Abe and Obama also resulted in some failed messaging from Washington. One of the most acute examples of this was the U.S. acceptance of the term “great-power relationship” to reflect its ties with Beijing. The move, which came out of the Obama-Xi summit at Sunnylands, resulted in bewilderment in Japan, among other places in Asia, and has contributed to fears that the Obama administration may acquiesce to China’s salami-slicing tactics in the East China Sea. While the United States insists that its interpretation of the “great power relations” is different than that of Beijing, the perception in Tokyo remains that this was a critical mistake. These cracks were heightened once again when the United States and Japan appeared out of sync with regard to the compliance of their commercial airliners to China’s unilateral imposition of an Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea last November.
It was perhaps for that reason that Obama, surveying the pile up at the intersection, sought to restore order again with a flashing yellow caution light pointing all ways by declaring the US bound by a treaty to defend the Senkaku islands. You might have thought he would learn something about drawing Red Lines, but hey, it’s Obama.