Friday, October 21, 2011

US plants a stake at China's door, fostering instability inside and around China....

US plants a stake at China's door, fostering instability inside and around China....
By Peter Lee

In recent weeks, China and the United States have both issued white papers outlining their visions of the world and Asian order. The Chinese version - its "White Paper on Peaceful Development" - set out a rosy vision of peace and prosperity driven by economic development. [1]

However, aggressive state capitalism is not a panacea for China or the world, a fact that China’s leadership may be ignoring at their peril.

The US version - in the form of a lengthy piece, "America's Pacific Century," published in Foreign Policy magazine under Hillary Clinton's name - is a misguided exercise in agenda-setting that may have even more serious long-term consequences. [2]

Its true message, if anyone still had any doubts, is that the short-lived "G2" romance at the beginning of the Obama administration - the hopeful idea that China would serve as America's favored Class 1 interlocutor on matters of global importance, instead of a distrusted adversary - is dead and buried in the US diplomatic graveyard, next to Iranian rapprochement.

Instead, it looks like rivalry with China is meant to serve as the raison d'etre of US diplomacy in Asia.

The theme of the Clinton article is the "strategic pivot" from the Middle East to East Asia. In other words, as the United States government sheds the incubus of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it will devote the majority of its energy and focus to East Asia.

A less flattering alternative explanation is that the US has shot its geopolitical bolt in the Middle East, and increasingly assertive governments in Tel Aviv, Riyadh, and Cairo are less interested in following the US tune.

Asia on the other hand, offers a more welcoming environment: one big and rather menacing country, China, and a lot of smaller countries interested in a US counterweight.

In practical terms, Secretary Clinton's coming "Pacific Century" looks a lot like the last 60 years of the "Pacific Century": America maintaining its Asian military footprint and allying with friendly nations to constrain China.

In terms of East Asia, as growth roars along and the region slowly drifts away from reliance on external markets, US leadership looks increasingly like a solution in search of a problem. North Korea, Taiwan, and disagreements over the Spratly Islands and the South China Sea are not threats that justify a regional alignment against China.

China has staked its chips on a peaceful global environment that allows it to leverage its economic advantages, not rampaging through the region militarily to seize resources and markets (as a certain US ally did in the 1930s and 40s).

However, defense spending seems to be the only growth sector in Western democracies that taxpayers are willing to fund.

So maybe this is an example of an agency problem: the Asian situation gives the US government a chance to squander the peace dividend it will get when it finally disengages from Iraq and Afghanistan … or more accurately to resquander the peace dividend from the end of the Cold War.

It is not exaggerating too much to say that China's foreign policy in the last three decades has been driven by the perceived need to guard its fragile, multi-ethnic empire and short list of regional allies from the baleful attention of the United States.

The George W Bush administration's catastrophic crusade in the Middle East provided a welcome respite. But now, as Secretary Clinton indicates, the US wants to "return to Asia"; in other words, demonstrate its continued relevance by fostering a dynamic of crisis and instability inside and around China.

Given the interdependence of the world's economies, and China's place near the heart of it, this policy might be counter-productive and potentially dangerous.

But it seems that, from the US view, to paraphrase Milton's description of Satan, "tis better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven" and we can look forward to a decade of self-righteous mischief as a fading superpower deploys its assets to frustrate the grand ambitions of a rising regional power on the Asian mainland.

As India, Vietnam, South Korea, The Philippines, and Japan all edge into a confrontational alignment against China with the backing of the United States, the neighborhood will become more dangerous for China.

For instance, Secretary Clinton voiced her support for India's Look East policy, which most recently bore fruit with an offshore oil exploration agreement between New Delhi and Hanoi - and the assurance that stakes and tensions in the South China Sea will be raised further by the continued presence of Indian commercial and naval vessels in disputed waters.

One really wonders if Indian poaching in the South China Sea was what the South China Sea dispute really needed at this time - with an excess of geography-challenged enthusiasm, President Manmohan Singh described India and Vietnam as "maritime neighbors" - but Western comment on this rebuke to China appears to have been universally positive. [3]

Over the next decade it remains to be seen whether or not the Communist regime in Beijing is able to keep its economic, political, and social agenda on track under these more stressful conditions.

There are certain prerequisites for asserting American "leadership" in Asia, as opposed to peer to peer participation. The first, of course, is security or, rather, insecurity.

As Japan inches towards constitutional revision (and the largely ceremonial repositioning of its bulked-up Self Defense Forces as the Japanese Armed Forces) and the prosperous economies of South Korea, Vietnam, and the Philippines muscle up their defense budgets, the traditional role of the US as preventer of a regional arms race looks less credible.

Therefore, the State Department and Department of Defense should give thanks every day for the insecurity offered by Kim Jung-il, the muddle of islands in the South China Sea, and China's infamous nine-dash line (that self-declared boundary that claims a disproportionate part of the South China Sea for the People's Republic of China).

Or, as Secretary Clinton put it:
Strategically, maintaining peace and security across the Asia-Pacific is increasingly crucial to global progress, whether through defending freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, countering the proliferation efforts of North Korea, or ensuring transparency in the military activities of the region's key players.
Without these local hotspots, the Seventh Fleet would be hard-pressed to find enough earthquakes, tsunamis, and other humanitarian crises in the region to justify its large and rather expensive presence.

In fact, China is flexing its own humanitarian muscles. It performed a large-scale evacuation of Chinese nationals from Libya and offered the services of a coast guard cutter to Japan after the tsunami (an offer that was apparently not taken up).

It will be an interesting spectacle if and when China sends its otherwise-useless aircraft carrier, the ex-Soviet, ex-Ukrainian, ex-Varyag, lumbering into some Asian disaster zone to offer assistance to stricken inhabitants in competition with the USS George Washington.

The most striking instance of the United States fomenting insecurity in order to insert itself into Asian affairs is l'affaire South China Sea.

In 2010, the Obama administration made the strategic decision to respond to the complaints of Vietnam and, to a lesser extent, the Philippines, concerning Chinese intransigence over territorial disputes in the South China Sea. At the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Hanoi, the US put China at a disadvantage by multi-lateralizing the disputes, which heretofore had puttered along slowly to China's advantage as a series of bilateral spats over the rocks, reefs, and hydrocarbon deposits that dot the waterway.

Or, as Clinton puts it:
In 2010, at the ASEAN Regional Forum in Hanoi, the United States helped shape a region-wide effort to protect unfettered access to and passage through the South China Sea, and to uphold the key international rules for defining territorial claims in the South China Sea's waters. Given that half the world's merchant tonnage flows through this body of water, this was a consequential undertaking. And over the past year, we have made strides in protecting our vital interests in stability and freedom of navigation and have paved the way for sustained multilateral diplomacy among the many parties with claims in the South China Sea, seeking to ensure disputes are settled peacefully and in accordance with established principles of international law.
Ironically, of course, the US is not a signatory to the treaty establishing the relevant international law - the Law of the Sea Treaty - and it looks like China has been determinedly pursuing its traditional policy of bilateral talks with Vietnam and the Philippines despite

United States efforts to force them into a multilateral channel.
It remains to be seen whether US attention to this issue speeds up a settlement or simply exacerbates the problem. But in any case, the South China Sea is now declared to be part and parcel of America's vital interest in "stability and freedom of navigation", giving the US the right to a say in the situation - and mandating the forward military presence that is inseparable from the US defense of its "vital interest".

The most interesting tack in Secretary Clinton's argument is an implicit acknowledgment that the unthinkable might happen. With the major players in the region pursuing economic development and integration, peace - or at least the election of governments in South Korea and Japan that distance themselves from the US and cozy up to China - might break out.

This could validate the Chinese position that peaceful economic development - and accommodating a certain authoritarian regional superpower - trumps the imposition of an expensive and destabilizing security regime - favored by a certain global hyperpower - as the best way in Asian geopolitics.

Not much chance of that happening, right now, of course.

Governing with US backing is still good politics and geopolitics for South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, and even Taiwan (which could swing to the anti-mainland Democratic Progressive Party come January).

But just in case local enthusiasm for the US presence diminishes, well, there's an app for that. Clinton declared:
Harnessing Asia's growth and dynamism is central to American economic and strategic interests … broader commitment to elevate economic statecraft as a pillar of American foreign policy. Increasingly, economic progress depends on strong diplomatic ties, and diplomatic progress depends on strong economic ties. And naturally, a focus on promoting American prosperity means a greater focus on trade and economic openness in the Asia-Pacific.
By this calculation, therefore, the US claims a decisive role in Asia not just to protect the homeland from Kim Jung-il's missiles or American allies from Chinese military and economic pressure. Advantageous participation in the Asian economic rise is "central to American economic and strategic interests."

Inevitably, this means sustaining the military assets, alliances, and political and economic pressure points necessary to make sure that Uncle Sam is getting his fair share out of Asia.

That really appears to be the bottom line: that there is little justification for the United States to "lead" in Asia other than the China threat ... to hog the Asian economic pie.

People's Daily was not amused.

In an article which confounded Secretary Clinton's "return to the Pacific" with General Macarthur's "I shall return" (apparently they translate into the same Chinese phrase), an editorial sniffed:
[A] few Asian countries hope to take advantage of the United States, especially its military power, to strike a so-called strategic balance with China. If the United States adopts this mentality in "returning" to Asia, it will face a zero-sum game with China, and will neither benefit from Asia's development nor play a positive role in promoting the regional security.

... a leading role requires more than ambition. The United States' status in Asia ultimately depends on its input. It should play a more constructive role in promoting the regional economic development and cooperation in multiple fields, instead of expanding its military presence to show off its irreplaceability because it has proven to be a dead end. Certain Asian scholars are worried that once the United States finds itself unable to maintain its leading role, it may extort more money from Asian countries in the name of protection and even stir up trouble by playing dirty tricks. [4]
The "extortion" slam is presumably referring to Clinton's statement that Japan is providing $5 billion in host-nation support - and a warning to other Asian nations that alliance with a financially-strapped US might become a cost center instead of profit center.

On the issue of dirty tricks, Clinton doubled down on the whole economic diplomacy deal before the New York Economic Club, shamelessly invoking the bogus China rare earths scare of 2010 as a justification for integrating foreign policy, economic , and military policy. [5]

She also made the rather chilling statement that international trade and business is a matter of national security, as Bloomberg reported:
Economic rivals are entering markets directly or deploying natural resources "to build and exercise power," she said.

That "critical concern" hit home for U.S. officials last year when China cut production of rare earth minerals - used in products as diverse as flat-screen televisions and weapons systems. China controls more than 90 percent of the supply.

"The challenges of a changing world and the needs of the American people demand that our foreign policy community - as Steve Jobs put it - think different," Clinton said. "We have to position ourselves to lead in a world where security is shaped in boardrooms and on trading floors, as well as on battlefields," she said. [6]
The United States has shown itself willing to inflict immense amount of collateral damage on regions, people, and the world economy in pursuing its national agenda.

"Creative destruction" or maybe just "destructive destruction" might work for the United States, particularly when it is inflicted at arm's length against a rival or competitor.

Whether a policy of militarized, destabilizing economically-oriented security arrangements would also be good for Asia, let alone China, is open to question.

Is China drinking its own Kool-Aid?, Asia Times Online, Oct 15, 2011.
America's Pacific Century, Foreign Policy, November, 2011.
India, Vietnam sign energy accord, AP, Oct 12, 2011.
Goals of US 'Return-to-Asia' strategy questioned, People's Daily, Oct 18, 2011.
Japan spins anti-China merry-go-round, Asia Times Online, Oct 29, 2010.
Clinton Adopts Jobs's ‘Think Different' Motto for Diplomacy, Bloomberg, Oct 20, 2011.

Peter Lee writes on East and South Asian affairs and their intersection with US foreign policy.