Obama's Asian Foray: Implications For U.S.-China Relations

          IITM CSC Article #72
06 May 2014

Obama's Asian Foray: Implications For U.S.-China Relations
In a widely noticed article analyzing Obama’s forthcoming visit to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines, published in the Washington Post (21 April), Tom Donilon, former National Security Adviser, informed that it was primarily designed to reinforce the “pivot or “rebalance” of U.S. priorities and resources toward Asia. Tom Donilon approved of this strategy to enable a shift of U.S. attention from the Middle East and South Asia, which had dominated U.S. national security concerns over the past decade, to the Asia Pacific region to provide greater opportunities for maximizing US power. Unstated, however, was President Obama’s dire need to dispel growing national and regional concern that Washington’s attentiveness towards Asia was faltering due to its obdurate financial and employment crises, war-weariness following the American misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, lack of bipartisan support for Obama’s foreign policy on the Hill, and his confused reactions to the crises in Syria and Ukraine.
Naturally, China views askance the U.S. “pivot” or “rebalance” that hopes to consolidate American presence in the Asia-Pacific theatre. Beijing could not have failed to notice that, despite a huge internal debate in Washington about reducing its largest-in-the-world defense budget, the United States is all set to expand its naval assets in the Pacific Ocean to 60 % of its total fleet strength by 2020. Former Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, had informed that this shift would entail a net increase to the Pacific Fleet of one aircraft carrier, four destroyers, three Zumwalt-type destroyers, ten Littoral Combat Ships, and two submarines. Apart from the strategic dimension the U.S. “pivot” or “rebalance” places much emphasis on trade and commercial relations with the Asia-Pacific region; hence the critical role accorded to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
A word about the TPP, which is being negotiated behind closed doors. In essence, it is a free trade agreement that is being negotiated between the U.S., Canada, and 10 other countries in the Asia-Pacific region to eliminate tariffs on goods and services, remove non-tariff barriers and harmonize their existing regulations. When finalized, the TPP will account for 40 percent of the world's GDP and 26 percent of the world's trade. The hope is that more countries will join the TPP. Importantly, this arrangement consciously excludes China, which should clarify its essential purpose beyond the shadow of a doubt. Columbia University's Jagdish Bhagwati has expressed his concern, noting that the TPP will not merely “contain" China, but also provide an economic counterweight to China in the Asia-Pacific region. Apparently, 60 American Senators have specifically sought that the final agreement for establishing the TPP must address the issue of currency manipulation to create a framework for taking joint action against China’s current restrictive practices to privilege the yuan.
The United States has ignored China’s apprehensions and protests regarding its containment by the American “pivot” or “rebalance” towards the Asia-Pacific region. The U.S. claims that it seeks constructive relations with China. But there is no disguising the reality that the essential purpose of Obama’s recent foray into the Asia-Pacific region was to shore up American allies and reaffirm its military alliances in the region to confine China geo-politically within East Asia. Washington claims that its Asian vision is “rooted in stability, economic openness, peaceful resolution of disputes and respect for human rights” clarifies that its unequivocal target is China. And, that the United States wishes to carve out a strong role in Asia to protect its allies from Chinese aggression, while disparaging China’s reliance on coercion and force in territorial disputes.
Despite being greatly concerned with these developments in the Asia-Pacific region that are inimical to its strategic and economic interests China has not learnt the right lessons. Its favored check book diplomacy has its limitations since its neighbors are also concerned with the strategic aspects of China’s far-from-peaceful rise. What they cannot fail to notice is that China has embroiled itself in the territorial disputes of its neighbors and played an active role in promoting their nascent tensions and instabilities. Apropos, China has land border disputes with India, Vietnam and Mongolia, and maritime disputes in the East and South China Seas with Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Taiwan, Brunei and the Philippines. Inevitably, this has led these countries to modernize and strengthen their armed forces, and solicit the countervailing power of the United States. A regional constituency now supports the American “pivot” or “rebalance” towards Asia that is detrimental to China’s strategic interests.
For all these reasons the belief obtains that a confrontation between the United States and China is inevitable. Graham Allison, the noted Harvard academician, calls it the Thucydides trap, where a rising power creates serious anxieties in the established power, which escalates war. Thucydides wrote: "What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta." Conflict between the rising China and established United States, therefore, seems unavoidable.
A contrary argument has been made by Amitai Etzioni, professor of international relations in the George Washington University. He has assembled men and women of goodwill to urge the establishment of a Mutually Assured Restraint regime between the United States and China. They reject the lesson of history that a rising nation must inevitably confront the nation in power leading to conflict. Instead, they argue that China and the United States have shared interests, like countering terrorism, curbing nuclear proliferation, promoting economic and financial stability, addressing climate change, and so on. Differences do exist, exacerbated by their allies’ interests that need to be ameliorated and resolved peacefully. Specifically, they need to shun the use of lethal means to alter the status quo; create buffer zones and not seek military alliances with neighboring countries; establish an International Code of Conduct to ensure cyber security; seek nuclear arms limitations; and, expand free trade zones.
Analysts and policy establishments need to cogitate over whether the United States and China will enter a Thucydides trap or establish a mutually assured restraint regime in the foreseeable future.
PR Chari,
Visiting Professor, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi
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