Obama’s China itch

Dancing with the dragon


The Japan Times

Nearly six months after U.S. President Barack Obama entered the White House, it is apparent that America’s Asia policy is no longer guided by an overarching geopolitical framework as it had been under President George W. Bush. Indeed, Washington’s Asia policy today appears fragmented. The Obama administration has developed a policy approach toward each major Asian subregion and issue, but still has no strategy on how to build enduring power equilibrium in Asia — the pivot of global geopolitical change

China, India and Japan, Asia’s three main powers, constitute a unique strategic triangle. The Obama administration has declared that America’s "most important bilateral relationship in the world" is with China, going to the extent of demoting human rights to put the accent on security, financial, trade and environmental issues with Beijing.

But it has yet to fashion a well-defined Japan policy or India policy. While a narrow East Asia policy framework now guides U.S. ties with Japan, Washington is again looking at India primarily through the Pakistan prism. That translates into a renewed U.S. focus on India-Pakistan engagement, resurrection of the Kashmir issue and preoccupation with counterinsurgency in the "Afpak" region, including implications for American homeland security.

Obama’s choice of ambassadors says it all. While Obama named John Huntsman — the Utah state governor and a rising Republican star seen even as a potential 2012 rival to the president — as his ambassador to China, he picked obscure former Congressman Timothy Roemer as envoy to India and a low-profile Internet and biotechnology lawyer, John Roos, as ambassador to Japan. Obama underlined China’s centrality in his foreign policy by personally announcing his choice of Huntsman. In contrast, Roemer and Roos were among a slew of ambassadors named in an official news release.

Huntsman has old ties with China, but Roemer and Roos hardly know the countries to which they have been named as ambassadors. Having served on the 9/11 investigation commission, Roemer, though, fits with the Afpak and homeland-security policy frame in which India is being viewed by the Obama team.

Whether one agreed with the Bush foreign policy or not, at least its Asia component was driven by a larger geopolitical blueprint. By contrast, the best can be said about Obama’s Asia policy is that it seeks to nurture key bilateral relationships — with China at the core of Washington’s present courtship — and establish, where possible, trilateral relationships.

The upshot of this is that the Obama team has just unveiled a new trilateral security-cooperation framework in Asia involving the United States, China and Japan. While announcing this initiative, the Obama administration has failed to acknowledge another trilateral — the one involving the U.S., Japan and India.

It is as if the U.S.-Japan-India trilateral has fallen out of favor with the new U.S. administration, just as the broader U.S.-India-Japan-Australia "Quadrilateral Initiative" — founded on the concept of democratic peace and conceived by then Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — ran aground after the late-2007 election of Kevin Rudd as the Australian prime minister. Without forewarning New Delhi or Tokyo, the Sinophile Rudd publicly pulled the plug on that nascent initiative, which had held only one meeting.

Now the Obama administration seems intent to bring down the U.S.-Japan-India trilateral. While announcing the new U.S.-China-Japan trilateral, it did not forget to cite the U.S.-Australia-Japan and U.S.-Japan-South Korea trilaterals. But there was no mention of the U.S.-Japan-India trilateral, as if that Bush-endorsed enterprise had become history like Bush.

At a time when Asia is in transition, with the specter of power disequilibrium looming large, it has become imperative to invest in institution-building to help underpin long-term power stability and engagement. After all, Asian challenges are playing into global strategic challenges. But the Obama administration is fixated on the very country whose rapidly accumulating power and muscle-flexing threaten Asian stability.

The U.S., of course, has every reason to engage China more deeply at a time when its dependence on Beijing to bankroll American debt has only grown. Just as America and the Soviet Union achieved mutually assured destruction (MAD), America and China are now locked in MAD — but in economic terms. The two today are so tied in a mutually dependent relationship for their economic well-being that attempts to snap those ties would amount to mutually assured financial destruction. Just as the beleaguered U.S. economy cannot do without continuing capital inflows from China, the American market is the lifeline of the Chinese export juggernaut.

From being allies of convenience in the second half of the Cold War, the U.S. and China now have emerged as partners tied by such interdependence that economic historians Niall Ferguson and Moritz Schularick have coined the term, "Chimerica." An article in China’s Liaowang magazine describes the relationship as one of "complex interdependence" in which America and China "compete and consult" with each other. Together, the two countries make up 31 percent of global GDP and a quarter of world trade.

But China’s expanding naval role and maritime claims threaten to collide with U.S. interests, including Washington’s traditional emphasis on the freedom of the seas. U.S.-China economic ties also are likely to remain uneasy: America saves too little and borrows too much from China, while Beijing sells too much to the U.S. and buys too little. Yet, such is its indulgence toward Beijing that Washington seeks to hold Moscow to higher standards than Beijing on human rights and other issues, even though it is China that is likely to mount a credible challenge to America’s global pre-eminence.

The new U.S.-China-Japan trilateral re-emphasizes Washington’s focus on China as the key player to engage on Asian issues. Slated to begin modestly with dialogue on nontraditional security issues before moving on to hard security matters, this latest trilateral is being billed as the centerpiece of Obama’s Asia policy. Such is its wider significance that it is also touted as offering a new framework for deliberations on North Korea to compensate for the stalled six-party talks.

Despite its China-centric Asia policy, the Obama team, however, has not thought of a U.S.-China-India trilateral, even as it currently explores a U.S.-China-South Korea trilateral. That is because Washington now is looking at India not through the Asian geopolitical framework but the subregional lens — a reality unlikely to be changed by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s forthcoming stop in New Delhi six months after she paid obeisance in Beijing. While re-hyphenating India with Pakistan and outsourcing its North Korea and Burma policies to Beijing, Washington wants China to expand its geopolitical role through greater involvement even in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

It is shortsighted of the Obama team to lower the profile of India and Japan in America’s Asia policy. Tokyo may be ceding political capital and influence in Asia to Beijing, and India’s power might not equal China’s, but Japan and India together can prove more than a match. The Japan-India strategic congruence with the U.S. is based as much on shared interests as on shared principles.

Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at the privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi.
The Japan Times: June 25, 2009
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