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Imperial Argument: Washington debates ‘Pivot to Asia’ strategy

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Over the last two years, the Obama administration has executed what the president has termed the “Pivot to Asia” strategy, whereby the US’ global military force posture is being reconfigured to focus on the Asia Pacific region as Washington’s central front.

Movement has been rapid, with Washington expanding its naval exercises with Japan, sending marines to Australia, conducting military exercises in the Philippines with its allies, and supporting the negotiating positions of the Philippines and Vietnam against China’s on the dispute over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, or what Filipinos now call the West Philippine Sea.  60 per cent of the US Navy’s strength has been deployed to the Western Pacific.

Containment of China is the aim of the Pivot strategy, and this has drawn criticism from liberal critics of the policy like Robert Ross, a professor of Political Science at Boston University and a China hand.  Writing in November-December issue of Foreign Affairs, Ross acknowledges that China’s actions in the South China Sea, including claiming the whole area as Chinese domestic territorial waters, come across as aggressive.  However, the Pivot, he claims, is based on “a fundamental misreading of China’s leadership, who are now given to “appeasing an increasingly nationalist public with symbolic gestures of force.”

For Ross, China’s increasingly bellicose rhetoric stems less from expansionist intent than from the insecurities brought about by high-speed growth, followed by economic crisis.   Long dependent for its legitimacy on delivering economic growth, domestic troubles related to the global financial crisis have left the Communist Party leadership groping for a new ideological justification, and it has found this in nationalism.   Countering its rhetoric with a military cordon sanitaire, says Ross, would deepen the “insecurities” of Beijing, leading to a truly belligerent posture on its part, heightening the possibility of an outbreak of conflict while losing China’s cooperation in managing conflicts such as the crisis in Syria.

The riposte to Ross came in the form of an article in the succeeding issue of Foreign Affairs authored by Shawn Brimley and Ely Ratner of the Center for New American Security.   While not an official response of the Obama administration, the Brimley and Ratner article brings together in once piece what Obama’s lieutenants, like Secretary of Foreign Affairs Hillary Clinton, have said in defense of the Pivot to Asia strategy in different contexts.  The aim of the strategy, say Brimley and Ratner is not to contain China but to promote adherence to international norms and rules of conduct. They write:

“…Washington is trying to construct a regional order undergirded by rules and institutions.  US diplomacy regarding disputes in the South China Sea, for instance, is based on principles and has sought to prevent a conflict form breaking out by encouraging all countries concerned to adhere to international law.  This effort mirrors the US strategy elsewhere in the world of protecting the global commons through a combination of US power and international initiatives.  That this approach appears to favor certain countries—and that Beijing objects to multilateral cooperation that might constrain its ability to coerce its neighbors—says more about its bias than it does about any American bias.”

The credibility of Brimley and Shatner’s defense is, however, undercut by the reality that, to borrow Mao’s famous way of distilling policies, the Pivot is 70 per cent military and 30 per cent diplomacy.   They themselves find it hard to conceal the aggressively militaristic thrust of the Pivot, noting that “the ending of the war in Iraq and the ongoing drawdown in Afghanistan are freeing additional military resources to be directed toward the Asia Pacific region in the form of new deployments, the prepositioning of military assets, and additional locations for the US military to train and exercise with long-standing allies and emerging partners.”  They continue:  “In the years ahead, the continued evolution of the US force posture in the region should be complemented by efforts to strengthen partners’ armed forces, carry out joint exercises, and pursue more ambitious military diplomacy.”

The truth of the matter is that, as in the Middle East and Latin America, there is more continuity than a break in the Obama administration’s approach toward Asia in relation to the policy of the administration of George W. Bush.   Prior to Sept 11, the neoconservatives in power had redefined China as a “strategic competitor” from the “strategic partner” it was during the Clinton years.  One might say that Obama’s Pivot is the resumption of Bush’s preferred Asia Pacific strategy that was put on hold by the necessity of enlisting China as a US ally in the War against Terror in the years after 9/11.

Yet the Pivot is not simply a question of taking up where Bush left off in 2001.   It represents a retreat from the comprehensive global military dominance that the neoconservative faction of the US ruling class attempted under Bush.  It really is a feint, a maneuver, to cover up a strategic retreat from the disastrous two-decades-long engagement in the Middle East and Southwest Asia.   The Pivot is an attempt by Washington to retreat to an area for imperial power projection that it sees as more manageable than a Middle East that is running out of control.

Yet this maneuver faces two problems. First, the Middle East, with its explosive mix of oil, the Arab Spring, Israel, and Iran, will not allow Washington to disengage.   Owing to its own past policies, the US is condemned to a condition of imperial overreach.  Second, the US redeployment of military force to the Asia Pacific will, as Ross says, trigger a military competition with China that has the potential of running out of control as the Chinese leadership responds to what it sees as Washington’s effort to contain its rise to regional and global prominence as it races to become the world’s biggest economy.

Ross, thus, is largely right.  However, his analysis of the sources of China’s flag-waving is a bit naïve.  For him, the Chinese leadership’s bellicose rhetoric and moves in the Western Pacific reflect insecurity and are mainly an attempt to harness nationalism as a source to legitimacy to replace the ability to deliver economic growth and higher living standards as the Chinese economy enters into crisis.  On the contrary, China’s push to claim the Senkaku Islands now controlled by Japan as well as the whole South China Sea reflects the cold calculation of a power seeking to stake a claim to an area rich in natural resources, including oil, that would support its drive to become a regional hegemon.  While China faces many economic and political challenges, one cannot say that its foreign policy moves are feints to cover up economic and political weakness.   Also writing in the January-February issue of Foreign Affairs, Eric Li, a Shanghai-based Chinese political scientist, has characterized the turnover of leadership in the Chinese Communist Party last November as a “smooth and well-orchestrated demonstration by a confidently rising superpower.”  One can say the same of China’s demonstrations of power in the Asia Pacific region.

Does this mean then that there is all the more reason for the US to come in as a “balancer”?   More likely, this is a prescription for the outbreak of destabilizing regional conflicts, such as the Korean War and the Vietnam War during the Cold War.  In Asia as in Europe, balance of power regimes have often ended up in conflicts, as political one-upmanship and arms races ran out of control.   China and its neighbors have legitimate territorial disputes.  The US’s entering the equation, ostensibly to help the latter, will simply result in superpower dynamics marginalizing resolution of the territorial issues.   For governments seeking to legitimize and legalize their territorial claims, this is no solution at all.

Washington’s military withdrawal from Asia is overdue.  Instead of normalizing relations between China and its neighbors, the US presence has long prevented the emergence of mature post-Cold War relations among them.  Left to themselves, China’s neighbors will be forced cooperate to come up with ways of dealing with the challenge posed by China.  Though the search for a common stand vis a vis China will not be easy, it will eventually emerge out of regional and international diplomacy, the activation of existing regional institutions such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and even the negotiation of new multilateral security alliances. A firm position against Beijing’s outrageous claims on the part countries like Vietnam and the Philippines, coupled with their employment of aggressive diplomacy at both a regional and international level, is the only route to stability and peace in the region, not balancing Beijing by calling in Washington.

Also, one must not forget that China’s foreign policy is the product of the experience of over two centuries of Western intervention, a history that is shared by other countries in the region.  With the drawdown of the US military presence, one must not underestimate the capacity of China and its neighbors to work out a new regional order that does a better job of promoting peace, harmony, and respect for sovereignty than the current regime of US military hegemony.

*FPIF columnist Walden Bello is a member of the House of Representatives of the Philippines and an authority in Asian affairs.


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