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Current Affairs

Shifting Asian Pivot


Shifting Asian pivot

 Munir Akram

OVER a year ago, President Obama announced America’s strategic pivot to Asia, away from its century-old Eurocentric focus. The rationale offered for the pivot was to counter the presumed challenge from a rising China.

The case made in Washington was that China had not responded to President Obama’s early attempts at engagement on political and economic issues. The Chinese armed forces were engaged in a massive, non-transparent build-up that would threaten US and regional stability. The Pentagon’s strategy review identified China as America’s adversary.

The consequent US assertiveness towards China became quickly visible. US secretary of state Hillary Clinton declared at an Asean forum that the US was an interested party in maritime disputes between China and some Southeast Asian states. This encouraged Vietnam and the Philippines to press their claims to disputed islands more aggressively.

The Pentagon announced that the majority of US naval forces would be deployed in the Pacific. Australia accepted the stationing of US troops on its territory. The US held joint military exercises with several Asian countries. The US delved into China’s internal affairs, offering support to dissidents and human rights activists. The ‘threat’ of cyberwar from China was highlighted.

Recent events indicate that the US decision to challenge China’s rising power is being modified. Secretary of State John Kerry, visiting Beijing in the midst of the latest Korean crisis, conveyed a call for Sino-US cooperation to build Asian and global stability. Kerry reportedly emphasised China’s responsibility as the world’s second and soon to be the first economic power. China was assured the US did not seek to threaten its vital interests. It had not taken sides on the islands dispute with Japan.

Kerry’s overtures found a responsive chord in Beijing. His trip was followed last week by the visit of US Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen Martin Dempsey who explained the US sought to be a “stabilising” factor (in Asia) and that its absence would be “destabilising” for the region. China’s chief of the People’s Liberation Army’s general staff repeated President Xi Jinping’s view that “the Pacific Ocean is wide enough to accommodate” both the US and China.

Although the US naval deployments in the Pacific and cyber-security were raised in the discussions and media, the visit was free of the open differences that have marked previous high-level Sino-US military exchanges. An agreement was announced for joint military exercises to combat maritime piracy and conduct humanitarian operations.

The proximate catalyst for the nascent Sino-US rapprochement was the crisis created by North Korea’s nuclear tests and its irresponsible threats of war, including the use of nuclear weapons. The new Chinese leaders have affirmed China’s commitment to zero nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula. There is anger in Beijing at the “ungrateful and irresponsible” behaviour of Pyongyang’s young leader.

Apart from the Chinese position on North Korea, the freshly friendly US approach is probably the result of a closer look at the negative consequences of challenging China. Over the past year, Beijing’s responses to Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan have demonstrated China’s determination to defend its maritime claims. The humiliation suffered by the Philippines was not lost on others. No Asean state, apart from Vietnam, supports the “internationalisation” of the maritime disputes, as advocated by Hillary Clinton last year.

The US has also no doubt learned that India is unlikely to play by Washington’s rule book. New Delhi considers itself to be “too big to be used” by the US. If anything, India would like to utilise the American desire for collaboration to promote its own agenda of South Asian dominance. At the same time, India is unwilling to confront China. To win Beijing’s goodwill, New Delhi has offered assurances to the Chinese that they desire a stable and prosperous Pakistan.

In contrast to America’s narrowing strategic options, China has the choice to collaborate with Russia, as signified by President Xi’s selection of Moscow as the venue for his first visit abroad. This can shift the balance of power not only in Asia but also in Europe. Nato, already to be weakened by the US pivot to Asia, would become even more vulnerable to Russia’s still considerable military power.

And, China can build the BRICS grouping into a credible counterweight to US dominance of international financial and political institutions. A first signal was Beijing’s agreement at the recent BRICS summit in South Africa to the establishment of a BRICS bank. Some group members are anxious to give the forum a political and strategic dimension. China has resisted so far; but could accede to this plan if strategically challenged by the US.

It is too early to predict which way the pivotal Sino-US relations will tilt. Today, the road to a “balance of cooperation” between the world’s first and second power is open. This could enhance the prospects of stability in a complex multipolar world that faces multiple threats from unresolved disputes, nuclear and conventional arms escalation, growing poverty and inequality, climate change and terrorism. President Obama, in his second term, has the domestic flexibility to build such a cooperative relationship with a rising China.

Under such an umbrella of Sino-US strategic cooperation, peace and stability in Asia, and elsewhere, would be easier to achieve. A number of local disputes among and within Asian countries could be more effectively addressed, first and foremost, the danger arising from North Korea’s adventurism. Even maritime disputes may become more amenable to solutions. And, Sino-US economic cooperation could accelerate global trade and growth and end the prolonged financial crisis.

The question is whether the process of Sino-US strategic cooperation will be allowed to happen. Large military budgets can be justified by highlighting the possible military threats to national security, however improbable. Great power cooperation and rational foreign policy choices may once again become a victim of the “military-industrial complex”, as that great general, president Dwight Eisenhower, eloquently warned.

The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.

Courtesy— DAWN 28/4/13


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