The US Moves To Counterbalance China In Asia
The past three days have seen some bold moves by the US to strengthen its influence in the Asia-Pacific region. On November 16, Washington and Canberra announced increased military cooperation from 2012, with the US to expand its presence in Australian military facilities, especially in the northern city of Darwin, where it will rotate up to 2,500 troops, as well as aircraft and ships. And on November 18, the US announced that Hillary Clinton will next month make the first visit to Myanmar by an American Secretary of State in more than 50 years. Given that Myanmar is still an international pariah, the latter certainly raises a few eyebrows.
Essentially, the US is seeking to ‘deal’ itself ‘back’ into Asian geopolitics after a decade spent fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The US is scheduled to withdraw the last of its troops from Iraq at the end of this year (contrary to our expectations, I might add), and is eyeing an exit from Afghanistan by 2015. All this will free up more diplomatic energies and military power to focus on Asia – assuming, of course, that Washington does not get drawn into a new war against Iran.
I should emphasise that despite the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the perception that the US has neglected Asia is somewhat exaggerated. The US retains tens of thousands of troops in Japan and South Korea, continues to arm Taiwan, and in 2004 designated the Philippines and Thailand as ‘major non-NATO allies’ – a status that confers enhanced defence cooperation. In addition, the US has been moving to resume military cooperation with Indonesia, and has boosted relations with Vietnam. Furthermore, the US’ outreach to Myanmar actually kicked off in 2009.
Nevertheless, there is a perception that China has increased its influence while the US has been busy elsewhere. Certainly, Chinese economic influence has grown stronger, and the People’s Republic is now the biggest trading partner of a growing number of Asian states. However, when it comes to the region’s security, the US is still the premier partner of choice.
Essentially, China’s increasing assertiveness in pursuing its maritime claims in the South China Sea and East China Sea since 2010 has been counterproductive, in the sense that it has made many regional states wary of Beijing’s intentions. This is turn has driven these countries into closer relations with the US.
The US is also moving to shore up its economic influence in the region via the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which if fully implemented, would become the world’s biggest free-trade zone – one that would for the time being exclude China.
Page-Turner In Burma
Washington’s efforts to bring Myanmar out of the cold merit close attention. Myanmar is of great geopolitical significance, because of its extensive coast on the Indian Ocean (which is itself emerging as a zone of ‘Great Power’ competition), which guards the approach to the crucial Malacca Straits waterway, and because it serves as a buffer between China and India. Beijing has been seeking to develop Myanmar as a key transport corridor for its landlocked inner provinces, for the purposes of giving them improved access to world markets. For its part, the regime in Naypyidaw has leaned towards China for many years, but mainly because it has been isolated by the US and EU. This could slowly be changing.
If the US can successfully drag Myanmar out of China’s orbit, then this would be a significant diplomatic victory. A pro-Western and liberalised Myanmar would also stand to benefit economically. Myanmar, with 50 million people and extensive resources, is the last Asian state of significant size not to have emerged as a ‘tiger’ economy. In time, probably decades rather than years, we believe the country could evolve along the lines of Thailand – provided, of course, that political liberalisation does not lead to state disintegration, which temporarily befell Indonesia in 1998.
The Greatest ‘Game’ Will Intensify In The 2010s
Where does all this leave China? Not very happy. Beijing’s strategic planners are right to view US moves as ‘containment’ or ‘encirclement’, even if Washington has no hostile intentions. For the time being, China does not have the strength to challenge the US’s dominance of the region’s security arrangements. However, by the mid-2020s, China will probably have an economy almost the size of the US, and its military power will have increased substantially. At this point, it will be in a better position to challenge the US.
Over the coming decade, my colleagues and I expect to see an intensification in competition between China and the US for influence in the Asia-Pacific region, with Japan, Vietnam, India, and Australia most closely aligned with Washington. In general, though, we expect most countries in the region to carefully balance their relations between the two powers.
Is there a risk of military conflict? We believe that no-one has an interest in this, but when push comes to shove, things can spin out of control quickly. For example, there is certainly the risk of Chinese, American, and South Korean intervention in North Korea, should that country collapse. Also, there is a risk that increasing military activities in the South China Sea could lead to naval stand-offs, armed skirmishes, and even aerial confrontations. Recall that in early 2001, a Chinese fighter jet collided with a US spyplane, which was forced to make an emergency landing in southern China. Beijing detained the 24-strong crew for about a week, in a diplomatic stand-off with Washington. No lasting harm was done to bilateral relations, but new incidents like these would certainly make investors nervous.