The United States is currently in the midst of an unprecedented economic crisis that shows no sign of an early recovery. Many of its leading economists and public figures are convinced that US foreign policy must now be tailored to reflect the existing reality that it is no longer the world’s indispensable power.
President Obama, too, had been making all the right noises about reducing the national debt, striving for a balanced budget and acknowledging that it is not raw military power alone that makes a nation powerful and influential. However, during his recent ‘yatra’ in the Pacific region, he adopted a far more belligerent posture, ostensibly because the US is worried that China, while still militarily weak, could rapidly become an economic giant that could begin to impinge on US interests, especially in the Pacific.
This theme is not new but has now become a chorus, with many Democrats joining in. Defense Secretary Panetta, who when appointed as President Clinton’s Budget Chief, had been a strong advocate of trimming the defence budget, has become its standard-bearer, wanting the US “to remain a presence in the Pacific for a long time”. Secretary Clinton, too, has joined the ranks of those who believe that China, notwithstanding its denials, represents a threat to US interests if not now, then at some point in the future. Writing in the journal Foreign Policy last month, Clinton called for “a substantially increased investment — diplomatic, economic, strategic and otherwise” by the US, particularly in Asia.
Many credible scholars are, however, not convinced that China desires to confront the US, or is even capable of doing so. There is simply no way that China could do so, with a defence budget of $160 billion, compared with more than $500 billion spent by the US, or closer to $700 billion, if the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are included. Moreover, its economy is so inextricably tied to that of the US and Europe that any confrontation would be catastrophic to her as well. Nevertheless, the Pentagon has stepped up investment in new generations of weapons systems, while fear of the Chinese has also become a boon to the defence contractors. It is not only India that has embarked on a huge spending spree, countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan, Korea and others are being assiduously courted by British, French and American arms manufacturers, with offers to sell them state of the art weapons systems.
Admittedly, some of this reaction could be attributed to China’s needless assertiveness in its approach to neighbours across the South China Sea. Its recent conciliatory initiatives indicate that Beijing recognises its folly, but the damage may have been done, with neighbours alarmed and the US seizing the opportunity to embed itself in the region’s strategic architecture, signing treaties, expanding bases, selling arms and launching regional initiatives that will not only constrain China, but embolden its neighbours and increase American influence in the region, while countering the impression that the US was in decline and therefore losing interest in the region.
While Obama insisted that he wanted stable relations with China, he demanded that Beijing “play by the rules” and that its export-driven policies “throws the whole world economy out of balance”. There is thus no doubt that America’s forceful re-entry into the Pacific could have profound implications for the region — economic, political and military. On the first, America’s effort is to press the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to transform itself into the Pacific Free Trade Area, while keeping China out of it. On the second, China’s neighbours are being knit into a US-sponsored alliance, while on the military front, Washington is likely to announce a new doctrine called the ‘air-sea battle concept’, aimed at coordinating naval and air forces in the Pacific. Sadly, we may be witnessing this vast ocean becoming a new stage for a bitter Sino-US confrontation.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 23rd, 2011.