Obama’s China-centric Asia policy

Courting The Dragon

Washington’s Asia policy gives Beijing pride of place


Brahma Chellaney

The Times of India, July 2, 2009


The key reason why India ranks lower in the policy profile of the Barack Obama administration than it did under President George W Bush is that America’s Asia policy is no longer guided by an overarching geopolitical framework. In fact, after nearly six months in office, Obama’s approach on Asia lacks a distinct strategic imprint and thus appears fragmented. His administration may have a policy approach towards each major Asian country and issue, but still lacks a strategy on how to build an enduring power equilibrium in Asia.

The result is that Washington is again looking at India primarily through the Pakistan prism. That translates into a US focus on India-Pakistan engagement, revived attention on the Kashmir issue and counter insurgency in the Af-Pak region, including implications for U.S. homeland security. For instance, not content with making Islamabad the largest recipient of U.S. aid in the world, Obama wants victim India to come to the aid of terror-exporting Pakistan, including by offering new "peace" talks and redeploying troops, even if it means more terrorist infiltration.

In a recent Asia-policy speech in Tokyo to a small group, of which this writer was a member, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg did not mention India even in passing — as if India wasn’t part of Asia. Whether one agreed or differed with Bush’s foreign policy, at least its Asia component was driven by a larger geopolitical blueprint. By contrast, the best that 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 is that the Obama team has just unveiled a new trilateral security framework in Asia involving the United States, China and Japan. While announcing this initiative, Washington failed to acknowledge another trilateral — the one involving the U.S., India and Japan. It is as if that trilateral has fallen out of favour with the new U.S. administration, just as the broader US-Australia-India-Japan "Quadrilateral Initiative" — founded on the concept of democratic peace — ran aground after the late-2007 election of the Sinophile Kevin Rudd as the Australian prime minister.

At a time when Asia is in transition, with the spectre of power disequilibrium looming large, it has become imperative to invest in institution-building to help underpin long-term stability. After all, Asia is not only becoming the pivot of global geopolitical change, but also Asian challenges are playing into international strategic challenges. But the Obama administration is fixated on the very country whose rapidly accumulating power and muscle-flexing threaten Asian stability.

This is not to decry deeper U.S. engagement with China at a time when Washington’s dependence on Beijing to bankroll American debt has only grown. 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 close interdependence that economic historians Niall Ferguson and Moritz Schularick have coined the term, ‘Chimerica’ — a fusion like the less-convincing ‘Chindia’. 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.

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 would stay uneasy: America saves too little and borrows too much from China, while China sells too much to the U.S. and buys too little. Yet, such is its indulgence towards China that Washington holds 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-emphasises Washington’s focus on China as the key player to engage on Asian issues. Slated to begin modestly with dialogue on non-traditional security issues before moving on to hard security matters, the latest trilateral already is being billed as the centrepiece of Obama’s Asia policy. Such is its wider significance that it is touted as offering a new framework for deliberations on North Korea to compensate for the eroding utility of the present six-party mechanism.

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 prism but the regional, or Af-Pak, lens — a reality unlikely to be changed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s forthcoming stop in New Delhi more than five months after she paid obeisance in Beijing. While re-hyphenating India with Pakistan and outsourcing its North Korea and Burma policies to Beijing, the U.S. wants China to expand its geopolitical role through greater involvement even in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The point is that India’s role will not diminish in Asia just because the Obama administration fails to appreciate its larger strategic importance.

The writer is professor, Centre for Policy Research.


(c) The Times of India, 2009.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s