US foreign policy in Asia
As appeared in TheStar.com.my
THE United States is a global power. Asia the largest continent on earth. The Asian economies of the proposed RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) alone now constitute 30% of global output, with consistently the highest growth rates and holding the largest reserves in the world.
It is not likely the United States would have missed Asia in the conduct of its foreign policy in pursuit of its interests. The interminable discussion, particularly among academics, on the US pivot or rebalance to Asia, following President Barack Obama’s use of the former term, can be overdone. It can result in the wood being missed for the trees.
That discussion, furthermore, leads to concentration on the military and security aspects of US foreign policy in Asia. US policy-makers lend their weight to this, with statements such as those by former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the Asean Regional Forum in Hanoi in 2010 or previous Defence Secretary Leon Panetta at the Shangrila Dialogue in 2012.
Clinton had said freedom of navigation and the peaceful settlement of disputes were vital to US interests in the region. Panetta said that in the rebalance, US naval forces in the Pacific would be increased to 60% from the present 50%.
All this was said in relation to China, in the context of disputes the rising Asian power has with a number of states in the East China Sea and South China Sea. It did not take a leap of imagination to leave the impression the new emphasis of US foreign policy in Asia is primarily political-security in nature – and is intended to contain China as it became more assertive in the sea disputes.
A number of reasons has conventionally been offered for China’s greater assertiveness. It is a rising power; these things historically happen. On the other hand the US is a declining power; often a parallel is drawn with the conflict between Sparta and Athens in the 5th century BC which ended the latter’s domination of ancient Greece.
It is also asserted that there has been a loss of central control in China of the country’s bureaucratic political structures which allowed the fisheries department, for instance, to go ahead of the foreign ministry in asserting the sea claims. Unlikely as it may sound, this is not impossible especially as another reason offered is not mutually exclusive: the desire, at China’s centre, to shore up legitimacy at home at a time of increasing domestic stress, such as contending with the social consequences of slowdown in GDP growth from 10% to 7.5%.
All these reasons are not implausible, although I would add Asean’s desultory approach in pursuing the code of conduct under the terms of the Declaration of the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea of 2002 until the Scarborough Shoal stand-off in 2012 between China and the Philippines, and the failure of foreign ministers from the regional grouping to agree on a joint communique for the first time in that same year, gave Beijing time and space to fashion that greater assertiveness whatever its leitmotif.
In the context of US foreign policy in Asia, the China Question has become predominant again as it was all those years ago in regard to recognition of the communist regime, its representation of China at the United Nations and final establishment of diplomatic relations with Beijing in 1979.
The objective of balancing, if not containment of, China cannot become the sole reason for the United States’ greater involvement in Asia. It delivers a political-security good which most countries in the region secretly desire, but it cannot become the sum total of US foreign policy in Asia.
The drama of the sea disputes has obscured the good reason for US’ greater interest in Asia which is primarily economic, the region’s dynamism which has moved the centre of global economic gravity eastwards to the Asia Pacific. While the political-security interest may secure economic benefits, it can also spoil their achievement if relations between US and China are possessed by such a concern alone.
What has been happening in Asia is that both US and China are driving each other into positions which are antagonistic and not cooperative. Leaving aside military chest-thumping and bellicose diplomatic language, they are also trying to exclude, or at least marginalise the other, in the organisation of Asia-Pacific regional economic cooperation.
The RCEP (negotiation for which involves Asean and six Asia-Pacific states) does not include the United States. China has not been invited to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations. Vietnam, for instance, is a negotiating partner which would not pass the same pre-qualification as China if the US had some such objective test. It is realpolitik – and the compliment is returned with the RCEP.
Other Asian states are being forced into making a choice between the two constructs, whether they are members, or potential members, of both. Even if it is argued the two groupings will ultimately coalesce, the burning issue is the standards and style of trade and investment relations which differ, with the TPP particularly bearing heavy American imprint.
The US has done well in signalling its economic interest in Asia with the rebalance, often considered as the second pillar of the pivot to Asia. Understandably, having been at the centre of the international economic system that had driven Asian growth, it now wants, as a long-established Pacific nation, to share in further regional prosperity – by still being at that centre and by entrenching as well as by strengthening the rules of economic conduct.
The latter gives rise to problems in the pursuit of US foreign policy objectives in Asia. It is a new Asia the US is dealing with, not the Asia of yore when the American writ was overwhelming.
It is a more confident Asia. Indeed the whole sweep of the change in the centre of economic gravity is something of an Asian restoration. Earlier this month, the International Monetary Fund ranked China’s economy as the world’s biggest in purchasing power parity terms. American predominance in at most the last century is over. The Chinese economy which was the biggest in many more hundreds of years is now back.
The Economist observed: “The brief interlude in which America overshadowed it (China) is now over.”
Asia has also looked on as the American capitalist system came close to meltdown in the 2008 crisis because of many excesses embedded in the rules of the economic game. Rules and forms of crisis management which America taught Asia never to entertain were employed to save the economy. There have not been contrition and enough humility afterwards.
Indeed it would seem to Asia some of those rules are being strengthened with a vengeance in American trade and investment proposals, such as to be found in the TPP, particularly in respect of corporate rights against the state. Have not any lessons been learned both from recent economic experience and from the historic rise of Asia in the desire – perfectly understandably – to further Americans interests?
Yet the system America offers is still the best to achieve optimal economic outcomes. But it has to be substantially adjusted to avoid considerable social and political cost, and to reflect that other countries, especially in Asia, have grown up and grown big.
US foreign policy in Asia, therefore, has to be delicate and sensitive enough to adjust to what can be described without exaggeration as seismic economic change. On the one hand, it should not be drawn too deeply into exclusively political-security manifestations despite China’s unacceptable belligerent and assertive actions. On the other, America must adjust to Asia’s economic rise.
Schemes of trilateral or quadrilateral alliances, even of a “soft” kind, involving the United States, Japan, India and/or Australia, are provocative. While it is always stated by the advocates they are not against China, this is what Beijing reasonably feels. At the very least they isolate China. Alliances have a history of bringing about precisely the outcomes they purportedly want to avoid.
China for its part should not continue to be a stick in the mud, carping and complaining, self-righteous in proclaiming always that others are in the wrong, never Beijing. Whereas China’s actions in the South China Sea particularly have been bullying and abominable. Its sovereignty over areas it claims is not God-given. It is disputed. Other states have rights. It cannot go about behaving in the vein that might is right. It must recognise international laws and the friendships it eschews.
Actually, both America and China must give substance to the new type of great power relationship which was identified in the Obama-Xi Jinping meeting in Sunnylands, California in June last year. As Henry Kissinger wrote in the Washington Post in March this year the US must articulate its own vision for the evolving international order that is acceptable to both countries.
On the other hand, China should not expect to replicate principles of that kind of relationship which it had first forged with Russia in the mid-1990s. That model would not fit. Russia is not the United States. As the status quo global power and the revisionist rising regional power due weight must be recognised in each other. A very difficult process no doubt but neither should be in denial of the other’s position and a creative relationship can be forged without recourse to tired old foreign policy constructs.
Asean too has a role beyond tedious repetition of the Asean platform being the basis of regional cooperation and security. That platform will float away if there was not a stronger foreign policy positioning – particularly on the South China Sea disputes. There is some belated effort on the code of conduct but to always work from the technical and official position on these issues upwards without clear leadership at the top is disappointing to say the least. How many times have Asean leaders focused for more than half an hour on the South China Sea issues? There has to be deep concentrated effort.
The fear of failure cannot rule the day. If Asean states cannot take on at least one major foreign policy position in their region, how could they expect the US and China to negotiate on the more daunting evolving international order?
The states of Asia as a whole, of course, must also play the responsible part of grown-up countries to ensure their new found prosperity and outstanding economic prospect are not upset by stupid swagger and assertive expression. They must remember they still have some way to go. Future prospect is not current reality.
And, as the present global superpower, the US has a complex role quite unlike the situation in the past when its word was law. It is a different world. Therefore it cannot be the same America.
Tan Sri Dr Munir Majid, chairman of Bank Muamalat and visiting senior fellow at LSE Ideas (Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy), is also chairman of CIMB Asean Research Institute.