America’s Asian Foreign Policy – A Prediction
The American Background – Foreign Policy Focus on the Middle East
The Bush administration initiated Operation Enduring Freedom on the 7th of October 2001. The stated objective:
“Find Osama bin Laden and other high-ranking Al-Qaeda members to be put on trial, to destroy the organization of Al-Qaeda, and to remove the Taliban regime which supported and gave safe harbour to it.”
Amidst the rubbles of the 9/11 terror attack the invasion of Afghanistan received substantial support from the American people. However as the war stretched on and Osama Bin Laden remained at large and the Al-Qaeda infrastructure just fragmented, not completely destroyed, the war began to lose support. Currently CNN polls state that opposition to the war is at an all time high with 62% of the people polled saying that were opposed to the offensive. From the point of view of legality the War in Afghanistan is flawed as stated by Majorie Cohn, President of the National Lawyer’s Guild:
“Under the UN charter, a country can use armed force against another country only in self-defense or when the Security Council approves. Neither of those conditions was met before the United States invaded Afghanistan.”
The Bush administration initiated Operation Iraqi Freedom on 20th March 2003 to free the nation of Iraq from the ensnarement of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship claiming that the United States of America aimed to, quoting the then President George Bush, “to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, to end Saddam Hussein’s alleged support for terrorism, and to free the Iraqi people”.
The USA administration had been monitoring the Saddam Hussein regime closely and was growing increasingly suspicious that the government had managed to procure Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). In 2002 the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1441 which called for Iraq to completely cooperate with UN weapon inspectors to verify that Iraq was not in possession of WMD and cruise missiles. The United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission found no evidence of WMD and stated that Iraq was cooperating in terms of access.
In a remarkable turnaround in January 2002 Chief UN inspector Hans Blix noted amongst other things that 1,000 short tons of chemical agent was unaccounted for and that no convincing evidence had been presented with regard to the destruction of 8,500 litres of anthrax coupled with the fact that information on Iraq’s VX nerve agent program was missing. This was followed by a statement in February by the then Secretary of State Colin Powell at the UN at which he presented evidence that Iraq was hiding unconventional weapons.
The stated objectives of the invasion were;
“End the Hussein regime; eliminate whatever weapons of mass destruction could be found; eliminate whatever Islamist militants could be found; obtain intelligence on militant networks; distribute humanitarian aid; secure Iraq’s petroleum infrastructure; and assist in creating a representative but compliant government as a model for other Middle East nations.”
The invasion though quick, decisive and successful in its primary objective of toppling the Saddam regime was soon faced with fresh challenges. The period immediately following the invasion saw massive civil disorder including the looting of public and government buildings and drastically increased crime. Then followed the report by the 1,400 member strong US-led Iraq Survey Group that stated that:
Saddam ended his nuclear program in 1991. ISG found no evidence of concerted efforts to restart the program, and Iraq’s ability to reconstitute a nuclear weapons program progressively decayed after 1991. Iraq destroyed its chemical weapons stockpile in 1991, and only a small number of old, abandoned chemical munitions were discovered by the ISG. Saddam’s regime abandoned its biological weapons program and its ambition to obtain advanced biological weapons in 1995.
Across the globe the United States of America lost much moral high ground as these reports came out. Within America too the Republican Party was criticised for the reckless and ruthless war that had accomplished only the continued anarchy of a failed state. In 2004 Kofi Anan declared the Iraq War illegal stating categorically,
“I have indicated it was not in conformity with the UN charter. From our point of view and from the charter point of view it was illegal.”
Analysing the Afghanistan war we observe that as it dragged on indiscriminately it gradually lost support.
Opposition to the Iraq war was a campaign centre-piece for Obama who has maintained this stance since the beginning. Quoting his famous October 2002 anti-Iraq War rally:
“I stand before you as someone who is not opposed to war in all circumstances… I don’t oppose all wars… What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war. A war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics… I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda.”
This is significant; Obama believed that it was essential to transfer troops from Iraq to Afghanistan. Obama believed that the war on Iraq was costing the USA the support of the Muslim world, particularly the Middle East, he believed it was wiser to deploy more troops in Afghanistan to attain substantial results, maintaining that the Iraq War was completely careless and unjustified. Having being elected into power though Obama’s primary priority was the Global Financial Crisis, the worst recession since the 1930’s, a phenomenal mess that required most of his time and efforts. Obama took some responsible Keynesian decisions, authorising a $700 billion bailout that included the rescue of many of Wall Street’s largest institutions . This led to Obama gradually sliding down the approval ratings as bailouts of symbols that represented the worst of America’s profligate capitalism and greed irked a population suffering from double digit unemployment and massive salary cuts. Obama’s hands were however tied behind his back as decisive action was required in the face of crisis and he effectively guided his administration through the period. On the war front however Obama realised that the situation was more complicated than he had originally thought and that troop withdrawal as a process would be long – drawn. Obama started drawing up plans for the same but it was probably the loss of Edward Kennedy’s seat in Massachusetts, the appointment of General Petraeus and the impending mid-terms elections that finally galvanised Obama into taking the definite step of troop withdrawal from Iraq and the infusion of 30,000 more troops in Afghanistan.
Even as the combat operations of the Iraq war officially end on 31st August; 50,000 US troops remain in Iraq with the primary objective of continued training of domestic troops and fighting a shadow battle with insurgents. The focus is on reducing the damaging media coverage while maintaining support to the young and inexperienced security forces of Iraq. In Afghanistan Obama aims to produce tangible results before the Mid-term Elections (in November) in which the Democrats appear likely to lose multiple seats in the Senate.
The conclusion that can be drawn from the above analysis of the wars is that they occupied a major part of public consciousness and subsequently political consciousness as well. The years following 9/11 have seen intense focus on the Middle Eastern region with a particular focus on the Israel-Palestine conflict apart from the two wars.
As a consequence of this focus on a singular region there was a lack of foreign policy focus on East Asia, particularly China.
Three decades of consistent double digit economic growth had propelled China into the list of the world’s top 5 economies. It was during the Global Financial Crisis that China was finally acknowledged on the world stage as the economic superpower it had morphed into. The meltdown exposed the flaws of the capitalist model propagated foremostly by America. Prominent economists even examined the Chinese growth model, comparing it to the Western free market economy. It was the first time since the decline of the Soviet Union that the debate between the Socialist and Capitalist model been seriously reconsidered. It is China’s astonishingly rapid ascent that dazzled thinkers and policy makers across the globe. This article examines American foreign policy in the context of the co-incidence of the Global Financial Crisis and China’s acknowledgment on the world stage.
The background establishes that Middle East received primary focus but it is also important to examine Chinese foreign policy in the context of America’s Asian influence. China and America are firmly divided on a wide range of issues including Iran, North Korea, Taiwan, Tibet, the South China Sea amongst others.
Examining each of these issues in brief:
North Korea-South Korea: With a $1.356 trillion advanced economy, high per capital income and HDI score and the fastest broadband access (coupled with highest broadband penetration) in the world, South Korea has been a showcase of development. North Korea on the other hand remains an under-developed Command economy ruled by a dictatorial dynasty. America has maintained strong relations with South Korea since the Korean War with the USA having supported South Korea as a staunch bastion against Communism since 1945. America and Japan continue to remain primary trade partners of South Korea while China remains the most important ally of North Korea. China is North Korea’s biggest trade partner and its main source of food, arms and fuel. According to the Council for Foreign Relations:
“China has helped sustain Kim Jong-Il’s regime and opposed harsh international economic sanctions in the hope of avoiding regime collapse and an uncontrolled influx of refugees across its 800-mile border with North Korea.”
North Korea’s nuclear program has complicated the situation, especially after the second nuclear test in May 2009. China shares longstanding historical and ideological ties with North Korea and China has significant leverage over the North Korean government, but the main priority for China is to maintain support for Pyongyang (Capital-NK) as it ensures a friendly North Eastern border and maintains a buffer zone with democratic South Korea, a firm ally of the United States of America and one of the few nations in the world to see USA in a completely positive light (according to a Gallup poll conducted in SK). Chinese is gaining economically as well investing in North Korea (although considering the gigantic size of the Chinese economy these gains are not significant) but the primary objective is to maintain a stable regime in the neighbouring country as instability will push thousands, possible lakhs of refugees feeling from the violence. For the United States, South Korea is an ideal democratic development model and useful ally in a sensitive region. To bolster alliances further the US Navy conducted joint Naval exercise with South Korean Navy in the Yellow Sea (in the same place where the South Korea ship Cheonan was blown by a torpedo) with the objective of increasing pressure on North Korea, accused of sinking a South Korea warship (The Cheonan) without provocation. To highlight the importance of the American stake in the region the US Navy pulled out all stops to put up a spectacular show with the involvement of the USS George Washington, the world’s largest aircraft carrier and the crowning glory of the United States Navy.
Iran is currently China’s third largest supplier of crude with trade exchanges between China and Iran reaching $25 billion in 2010 and expected to increase to $50 billion by 2015. Iranian officials say that China and Iran mutually complement each other with Iran importing industrial goods and arms from China and accounting for 12% of China’s total oil consumption. Iran remains important to China for strategic reasons, especially energy security, a mission that Beijing has embarked on, on a high priority basis. Hu Jintao stated in 2009:
“We are quite confident that friendly and profound economic relations between the two countries should continue forever.”
The United States and China clash primarily on the issue of the aim of procurement of Weapons of Mass Destruction by Iran. In his famous “Axis of Evil” speech in 2002 George Bush described Iran, Iraq and North Korea as an axis of evil and warned them against the development of long range missiles and nuclear weapon research. Since 2003, the United States has alleged that Iran has a government sponsored program to develop nuclear weapons while Iran has maintained that their nuclear program focuses only on energy generation. In April 2010, the United States increased pressure to impose a new round of sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program.
China has shown support for Iran’s right to a peaceful nuclear technology with Foreign Ministry Spokesman Liu Jianchao stating in July 2008 that China “believes that sanctions, especially unilateral sanctions, are of no help.”
The US and several European countries have accused China of circumventing sanctions against Iran by selling dual-use metals that Iran could use to manufacture advanced weaponry, including long-range nuclear missiles. Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson has reiterated China’s position that sanctions are not the appropriate method to deal with Iran’s nuclear enrichment. In February 2010, China declined to support Western diplomats’ efforts to levy further sanctions on Iran, instead calling for continued negotiations in order to resolve the international stand-off over Iran’s nuclear program. The US ambassador to China has called upon the foreign ministry to not allow tensions related to Tibet and Taiwan “…Prevent us from working together to…prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability” and added that the US “looks to China to support strong sanctions should Iran continue to stall on the dialogue track.”
Obama’s government has clarity on the issue with the President categorically stating “the Chinese are obviously concerned about what ramifications [a proposed ban on investment in Iran’s hydrocarbon sector] might have on the economy.” Till the time China continues to depend upon Iran for oil imports and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad continues his ambitious nuclear program the USA and China will stand divided on the issue.
China believes that Taiwan is a part of the territory of The People’s Republic of China while the USA acknowledges Taipei’s claim as an independent territory as it is located in a strategically important position in Asia Pacific, sharing the same Democratic ideals. Taiwan is an important trade partner as well, currently the 9th largest trading partner with trade exchanges hovering around the 50 billion dollar mark in 2009. China and USA clash basically on the acknowledgement of Taiwan as an independent country with USA maintaining extensive relations with Taiwan based on the framework of the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act. The US also objects to China’s military threats against Taiwan countering them by providing security assurances and selling arms, a policy that is considered offensive to China’s foreign office. There is expected to be little change in the situation as the US shall continue to express its importance as a stake holder in Pacific Asia.
Recent times have seen; quoting The Economist, “the most comprehensive burst of diplomatic and military activity in Asia, particularly South-East Asia, in decades from an American administration.“
Following the high profile naval exercises with South Korea the US Navy parked the USS George Washington off the coast of Vietnam in the South China Sea, a disputed territory (China claims the South China Sea as territorial waters, a claim long contested by Vietnam). The gesture was to commemorate the completion of 15 years since diplomatic relations between the two countries had resumed (after Bill Clinton lifted the trade embargo on Vietnam in 1994). Hillary Clinton even declared the South China Sea a “national interest”.
The administration states that is simply reasserting a “national interest” and traditional role in East Asia. We have established in the background above that the region had been neglected due to the focus on the Middle Eastern situation. However in Asia, China’s rapid ascent has complicated consequences for the region. China’s administration has a high level of opaqueness due to which there is ambiguity surrounding China’s strategic aims. China is currently focusing on economic security through energy and resource security across the globe. China’s massive trade surplus and foreign reserves (exceeding the GDPs of more than 180 countries in the world) allow it to potentially wield vast influence on several smaller economies. Unlike the USA however the Chinese government policy is close knit and secretive, USA declares its foreign policy ambitions loud and clear across the globe, China prefers to keep its strategic ambitions to itself. And it is this secrecy and opaqueness that has caused unease across Asia. China’s rapid ascent adds another layer of mystery and unease. In this context, after dealing with the high priority financial crisis and the Middle East the US swung its attention to Asia to reassure allies of continued American support and strategic stake in the East Asian region. The USA basically seeks to reassert its role as a counter balance in the region (except this time its against China, not Russia). Between Robert Gates and William Burns (Undersecretary of State – Political Affairs) 5 South East Asian nations have been covered in this outburst of diplomatic activity . Added to this the naval exercises of South Korea and Vietnam and we have the following statements:
“Chinese commentators detected an old bogey: an American attempt to “contain” China by bolstering alliances with its neighbours. “
“…Many in China see all this as part of a new containment doctrine ”
There is a distinct element of accuracy in these statements; it is precisely what the United States is trying to do. But I now present my analysis of future American foreign policy in the Asian region.
It is important to balance and counter-balance the Asian region against the threat of Chinese dominance. For this I believe USA must establish very strong and very close ties with three nations that are ideologically similar to the USA – India, South Korea and Japan.
Few nations in the world are ideologically similar to China, but North Korea is, and China has established strong social, cultural, economic, political and military linkages with its north eastern neighbour. Similarly USA must build up on a triangle of democratic nations that are ideologically similar – India, South Korea and Japan.
The rationale behind this is:
These three countries have a combined GDP (PPP) of around $500 billion more than China. Japan is the largest foreign holder of American public debt (surpassing China in early 2010). Japan, South Korea and India together make up 9.7% of America’s total trade, 8.9% of its total exports and 9.8% of its total imports. For each of India, Japan and South Korea the USA is primary trade partner with the USA accounting for 22.9% of Japan’s total exports (largest export market) and 12.7% of total imports (2nd after China) while USA has been India’s largest trade partners for years until this fiscal when trade with China surpassed Indo-US trade for the first time. The USA is a critical export market for South Korea with total trade predicted to cross $50 billion this fiscal. Japan maintains strong economic and cultural relations Taiwan although it has ignored diplomatic relations so far due to pressure from China.
America’s intent of containment of China may also be observed in the insistent pressure by the US government on China to appreciate the value of the renminbi. Appreciating the value of their currency would make their currency would make the Chinese exports less competitive. Now the United States does not compete directly with China in the exports market. In fact it the primary importer of Chinese goods and appreciating the value of the Chinese currency would make Chinese goods more expensive for the US market. America’s primary interest however lies in correcting global trade imbalances caused due to China’s artificially low currency rate. China’s competitive exports were hurting America’s allies in Asia Pacific, South Korea and Japan. It is in America’s interest that they are economically strong in the face of a rampaging China.
Form of Government: Democracy
China remains the last viable Communist government on the globe, neighboured by North Korea, a semi-failed state ruled by a dictator under the guise of pseudo-socialist ideals. Technically East Asia can be said to have the highest concentration of Communist activity in the world with China accounting for 1/6th of the world’s population. The US invaded Vietnam with a view to stop the Communist domino effect across Asia, while this course of action is not viable in the Chinese situation the USA would prefer to have to strong links with Asian countries that are staunchly democratic, India, the world’s largest democracy also plays host to 1/6th of the world’s population. This triangle of democratic countries and their development record (India’ per capita GDP PPP is behind China, but catching up. Japan and South Korea are developed nations with high per capita GDPs) would be enough to deter increased communist activity in the region. The US Department of States states that, “All postwar Japanese governments have relied on a close relationship with the United States as the foundation of their foreign policy and have depended on the Mutual Security Treaty for strategic protection.” It further states that, “The U.S.-Japan alliance is the cornerstone of U.S. security interests in Asia and is fundamental to regional stability and prosperity.”
Stability in the region, policy on North Korea and Iran:
The US Department of States states that, “In Southeast Asia, U.S.-Japan cooperation is vital for stability and for political and economic reform”. Japan has been the world leader on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and is staunchly opposed to the nuclear programs of both North Korea and Iran.Japan strongly supported the United States in its efforts to encourage Pyongyang to abide by the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and its agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). South Korea has had hostile relations with North Korea since the Korean War and is also staunchly opposed to North Korea’s nuclear program.The U.S., Japan, and South Korea closely coordinate and consult trilaterally on policy toward North Korea, and Japan participates in the Six-Party Talks to end North Korea’s nuclear arms ambitions. The USA considers support from India – which is on the 35-member board of Governors at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)- crucial in putting up obstacles to the Iran nuclear program. Despite extensive trade relations centred on crude oil imports India voted against Iran’s nuclear ambitions in an IAEA meet in 2005. India’s current policy is to continue trade relations but to align with the USA against the nuclear program.
All three nations are aligned in policy and opinion with the USA on the key issues of nuclear arms possession by renegade nations like North Korea and Iran.
Being billed the battle of the 21st century the Indo-China economic rivalry is well documented. However it is the Kashmir and Arunachal border disputes that would concern India more. The brief 1962 war still rankles in Indian military circles and China shows traces of hostility frequently with regard to the border dispute; even as economic exchanges between the countries touch new highs. For a stable 21s century a new triangle of cooperation is required:
By 2050 China, USA and India will be the world’s largest economies (according to most estimates, some vary). This triangle I believe is futuristic and will evolve over time but will together be a behemoth that will be the most influential force of the 21st century.
Till the dynamics of East Asia stabilise completely which I believe is likely to occur sometime in the next 25 years when China’s growth slows down to a more moderate percentage; till that time I believe it is this democratic triangle of influence of India, South Korea and Japan brought together by the USA that will act as an effective counter balance to the over-ambitious strategic aims of the People’s Republic of China.
Views presented in the article are those of the author and not of ED.