Three Elements in New Foray

The U.S. diplomatic offensive in Asia packs an economic, military, and political punch.
A commentary by Philip Bowring
2011-11-21
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U.S. President Barack Obama (L), Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (C) and Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard (R) at the East Asia Summit in Bali, Indonesia, Nov. 19, 2011.
AFP

 It did not make big headlines back home or probably do much for President Obama’s re-election hopes, but this month has seen the U.S. President lead a multifaceted U.S. diplomatic offensive in the Asia/Pacific region.

In quick succession, the President used the platform of the APEC summit in Honolulu to push ahead with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) embracing trade and other issues with select countries on both sides of the ocean, visited Australia where he announced the stationing of a small but symbolically important contingent of marines at Darwin in the Northern Territory and then attended the East Asian Summit in Bali, Indonesia, where it was revealed that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would visit Burma, signaling a big shift in U.S. policy towards that country.

The events may at first sight appear unrelated. But they are three aspects of a broader goal, one economic, one military, and one political.

Obama made it clear that after a decade when the U.S. had been preoccupied with wars in the Middle East and “on terror," a decade which coincided with China's rapid rise as an economic and military power, the U.S. was re-focusing on the Asia-Pacific region.

This was the Pacific Century, and the U.S. would be closely engaged in shaping it. The initiatives can all be seen as a counter to the rise of Chinese influence in the region and a message to America’s many friends in the region that it intends to stay around.

Whatever restraints U.S. fiscal problems impose on its military spending and despite the U.S. need to rebalance its trade, priority would be given to its presence in this region.

Pacific trade push

TPP is aimed  at creating a group with particularly close ties to the U.S. and each other to foster free trade, liberal investment policies, and other forms of cooperation.

The broader APEC, with its 21 members ranging from Russia to Chile, is too big and unwieldy to be a force for liberalization. Meanwhile in East Asia the 10-member ASEAN group has signed up a free trade deal with China and is negotiating others.

The group known as ASEAN+3, encompassing China, Japan, and South Korea has made some progress in cooperation on exchange rate and foreign reserves issues.

Meanwhile, global progress on trade liberalization within the World Trade Organization has come to a halt due to the failure of the Doha Round of negotiations. Until recently too, the U.S. free trade pact with South Korea had for years been held up in the U.S. Congress.

TPP was thus an attempt by the U.S. to find a new way of engaging with its closest partners across the Pacific. There has been considerable skepticism of it. But in Honolulu, Japan announced its intention to join—much to the dismay of most protected sectors such as farming.

If real progress is achieved, other Asian countries such as South Korea and Thailand may join. In theory, the grouping is not aimed at China, which might qualify at some future date.

But for now, it represents an effort of the U.S. to deepen cooperation with select countries which could well enjoy tariff preferences as a result. TPP may seem a  weak counter to the attraction of China, but it does play to concern in several countries that they have become too dependent on China as a market and source of investment.

Military base

One such is Australia, which explains why its government agreeing to the stationing of some 3,000 marines in Darwin. This came as a surprise because Australia has been going out of its way to emphasize the importance of China as a major market for its minerals and source of investment for its mines and farms.

But its military, historical, and social links with the U.S. and its memories of the U.S. as a protector against Japanese expansionism 70 years ago are proving to be even more powerful forces.

Australia had anyway already been strengthening naval cooperation with Japan and improving links with India, whose own navy is now looking more towards the east than in a past entirely dominated by concerns about Pakistan.

Unsurprisingly, China was annoyed by the Darwin base announcement but has itself largely to blame, given the massive expansion of its own naval forces and its provocative acts to push its claims to the South China Sea and to islands and seabeds disputed with Japan.

Some ASEAN countries suggested that the Darwin base could raise the temperature in the region and add to mutual suspicions. But as all of them—even Vietnam now— except Burma have some sort of cooperation with the U.S. military, none wants to see the U.S. presence weaken as that of China rises fast.

Political change

The opening to Burma, however tentative, can be seen as strategic as well as reflecting acknowledgment that political change there is under way. The military-backed but civilianized government which came to office earlier this year in the wake of unfair elections is set on ending its isolation, reducing its dependence on China for trade and arms, and seeing the end of Western sanctions. 

Some political progress, now given credibility by the willingness of the party of opposition heroine Aung San Suu Kyi to contest elections, has won Burma the right to host ASEAN’s annual meeting in 2014.

India and Vietnam have been strengthening their links to try to counter China’s influence, and Burma has angered China by cancelling an unpopular hydro-electric scheme which would have flooded a large valley to generate power for China.

A nationalistic but isolated Burma has begun to view with concern Chinese commercial influence well beyond the border areas of Burma itself and Laos and to wonder whether Chinese offers of road, railway, and  port projects linking its Yunnan province to the Indian Ocean are more for its own strategic purposes than for Burma’s benefit.

Mending U.S. relations with Burma will be a long process and one dependent on domestic political progress. But China is no longer having all its own way.

South China Sea

Indeed the roots of the U.S. diplomatic offensive in the region go back more than a year when Vietnam was chairing ASEAN and the regional meetings and brought the issue of China’s claims to the South China Sea onto the agenda.

The U.S. helped keep it there with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declaring U.S. interest in the issue of freedom of navigation and the need to resolve conflicting claims peacefully through multilateral negotiation and international law.

Since then a number of incidents involving Chinese ships harassing Vietnamese and Philippine exploration in areas within 200 nautical miles of their coast have brought further attention to the issue, inflamed sentiment, and made Japan more wary of Chinese power.

As for the U.S., it is clear that military spending in the region will not be reduced and that savings from having huge numbers of boots on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan will go towards maintaining its naval and air supremacy in the Pacific, with the U.S. meanwhile cooperating more than ever with allies old and new.

At the least, recent events may make China more circumspect and less pushy in the way it deals with its neighbors. It may be too late and China too important economically for it to return to the low international profile favored by former leader Deng Xiaoping.

But Beijing cannot fail to have noticed that the Obama offensive has mostly been well received in the region.

Philip Bowring, former editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review, is a freelance columnist based in Hong Kong. He is a regular contributor to the International Herald Tribune.