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Obama’s Faulty Trade-Off in East Asia

Rahul Mishra was Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • December 09, 2009

    The rise of a great power has never been frictionless and introduces fundamental changes at the very core of international politics. A shift in the existing balance of power often entails violence. The rise of Germany and Japan are cases in point. Today, China is a rising power and by all projections it is destined to become the second largest economy in about a decade or more, with probably one of the best equipped militaries in the world. China has begun to project its capabilities and its presence is being felt across the world. Despite the fact that the United States is the lone superpower, there are emerging pockets where China has greater influence. This is particularly true of the East Asian region, where a prime example is North Korea.

    The American response to this unfolding strategic scenario in East Asia is puzzling. President Barack Obama has declared that China is an ‘equal partner’ and a major stakeholder in shaping the 21st century and that it has a role in all of Asia including the Indian Subcontinent. During his recent visit to China, Obama did all he could do to woo China. But what is causing this attitude of the Obama administration?

    China has a huge stake in US Treasury bonds (US $727.4 billion) and the United States believes that China would be a decisive factor in fighting the economic recession. The Chinese economy has done fairly well, compared to most of the G-8 economies in spite of the recent financial crisis. China being America’s largest trade partner, the United States wants China to encourage domestic spending and thus help kick-start the American economy. Obama’s idea of a G-2 seeks to bring the United States and China together to lead the world. The G-2 is probably the first signal to the world that the end of unipolarity has begun.

    At the same time, despite the fact that Japan is the world’s second largest economy and holds $626 billion in US treasury bonds, it has not been given similar prominence in the Obama Administration’s Asia policy. This could be because of several reasons: the increasing belief of the Obama administration that, compared to Japan, China has a greater influence in the East Asian region; its apprehension that antagonising China might not be in the best interest of the United States; and the fact that by the middle of 21st century China would be the most powerful military and economy second only to that of the United States. Thus, indications are that it is partnership with China and not Japan, which the United States would opt for in the decades to come. As the ruling Democratic Party of Japan spokesperson said, “At any rate, with four days in China for Obama, the fact is China is the big thing for them.” Japan, which is getting militarily and socially transformed to a degree that the present generation no longer feels as connected to the United States as did the World War II generation, is taking serious note of the changed situation. There is even a possibility that Japan’s ties with the United States might witness a downward spiral, especially given the two countries’ inability to forge an agreement on relocating a military base in Okinawa as well as because of the Democratic Party of Japan’s inclination towards lessening dependence on the United States.

    Many analysts believe that the United States is getting too close to China and is overlooking countries like Japan and Australia – its prominent allies in Asia. Australia is getting increasingly apprehensive about China’s military assertiveness. For instance, the Australian Defence White Paper 2009 says that “the speed of China’s military build-up has the potential to cause regional concerns…” The situation was worsened by the ‘Rio Tinto controversy’ – Chinese accusations that Australian citizens were spying against China. Washington’s newfound bonhomie with Beijing might not be appreciated in Canberra in coming months if China and Australia are unable to overcome the recent spat and move on. As is apparent from the Australian Defence White Paper, Australia plans to upgrade its military capability by 2030; which, in some ways, indicates that Canberra thinks that the United States might not stay put in the region in the long run and that it has to meet the security challenges on its own.

    The United States seems to be outsourcing the politics of Asia to China. This is evident from the fact that it wants China to take control of the North Korean issue and play active roles on the Iran and Afghanistan issues. Outsourcing East Asia to China and getting more protectionist on trade and commerce might lead the United States back to the ‘isolationism’ of the interwar period and the resulting unwillingness to counter Japanese expansionism. Such a course is neither desirable for the world nor prudent for the United States.

    Additionally, the ‘Obama Steps’ such as G-2 are bound to raise expectations in China that it is poised to become the ‘new super power’ accepted and embraced by the United States. This, scholars like Elizabeth Economy and Adam Segal argue, “might not be met with and lead to further frictions.” The United States has had a similar experience with Japan in the first half of the twentieth Century. James Bradley, in a recent article published in The New York Times, points out that Theodore Roosevelt developed a special liking for Japan based on the assumption that it would play the American game. Roosevelt had noted that “All the Asiatic nations are now faced with the urgent necessity of adjusting themselves to the present age. Japan should be their natural leader in that process…” However, Japanese ambitions grew over the decades, leading to frictions between the United States and Japan and eventually culminating in the pre-emptive Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. Obama’s Shanghai town hall statements on China’s importance for the United States and his urging China to play a greater role in world politics is reminiscent of this earlier episode in America’s 20th century history.

    China is yet to demonstrate that it is an international stakeholder that respects fundamental universal values such as human rights and international boundaries. In addition, it has to resolve its Uighur problem, the Tibet issue, as well as boundary problems with its neighbours before it can emerge as a global power.

    For India, Obama’s steps are a setback. By “giving away Asia to China on a platter,” the Obama Administration’s posture undermines its traditional allies (Japan, South Korea, and Australia) as well as its new partners like India. Obama’s Af-Pak policy and statements on the Indian Subcontinent reveal that rather than being too dependent on the United States on regional security issues, India has to chart its own course to hedge against future uncertainties in Asian politics. It is time to take the cue from former US Secretary of State Colin Powell’s pet phrase: “Don’t bother people for help without first trying to solve the problem yourself.”