US shifts its focus on China

31 Oct, 2011 04:00 AM

Obama has come to realise the importance of India and China’s ambitions in the South Chine Sea.

As China’s power, influence and assertive policies in Asia increase, Beijing is encountering something it did not expect: growing resistance from neighbours instead of compliance.

And far from diminishing the United States strategic and military role, Beijing’s expansive pressure in the South China Sea and other contested zones around China’s maritime and land periphery is strengthening the US presence as a countervailing force.

When US President Barack Obama visits Australia next month, he is expected to put his seal of approval on plans developed by the ANZUS alliance to increase access to Australian bases for the US armed forces and their vital equipment and supplies so that they can operate more effectively in both South-east Asia and the Indian Ocean, either alone or with Australia and other allies and security partners.

US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, on his first visit to Asia since taking charge at the Pentagon last month, told a meeting in Bali (October 23) of defence ministers from the 10 member states of ASEAN, the Association of South-East Asian Nations, that despite big cuts looming for the defence budget the US would not be reducing its military presence in Asia but instead would continue to build stronger and more effective partnerships in the region.

He said that the US would enhance its ”presence in South-East Asia and into the Indian Ocean” in a number of ways, ”including increased defence activities and cooperation in Australia and the deployment of a Littoral Combat Ship to Singapore”.

The LCS is a new class of near-shore warship being constructed in US shipyards, partly based on designs developed by the sleek fast ferries with aluminium hulls built in Australia.

Panetta added that when Obama meets ASEAN leaders at a US-ASEAN summit in Bali next month he will present a plan for a new South-East Asia maritime partnership that would ”provide a comprehensive strategic framework for key aspects of US bilateral security assistance” in the region.

The most striking recent illustration of the trend to resist China’s growing assertiveness has been in Burma, widely considered to be a satellite of China. There, an elected military-led government, has sought to reduce its dependence on China by introducing political and economic reforms that enable Burma to turn to India, ASEAN and the West for support.

Burma’s Prime Minister Thein Sein, a retired senior army officer who took office in March, shocked Beijing by suspending a controversial China-backed hydropower dam project after a public outcry. Nearly all its electricity would have gone to China, and almost none to Burma.

But perhaps the most counterproductive move by China has been its recent attempt to prevent India from proceeding with enhanced energy cooperation with Vietnam in the South China Sea. This has only served to heighten regional fears about China’s sweeping claims to control over vast swathes of the sea in the maritime heart of South-East Asia.

It has also made it more likely that India, South Asia’s leading military power, will work more closely with the US, Japan, Australia and South-East Asian countries to contain China, which supports India’s arch-rival Pakistan and claims large chunks of territory that New Delhi says belong to India.

The fact that US National Security Advisor Tom Donilon visited Beijing and New Delhi last week marks a significant shift away from the early thinking of the Obama Administration that Asian problems could be best handled by talking mainly to China and Japan, with India as an afterthought. In New Delhi, Donilon met his Indian counterpart and other leaders to review recent developments in the US-India strategic partnership and discuss ways to advance key elements of the relationship, including both countries’ participation in the East Asia Summit in Indonesia next month.

A White House statement said that Donilon’s visit ”underscores this Administration’s commitment to growing US leadership in Asia, and our work with emerging powers, such as China and India, as a core component of this commitment”.

After saying earlier this month that China was ”one of the most challenging and consequential bilateral relationships the United States has ever had to manage,” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton heaped praise on India.

Clinton said, ”There are still obstacles to overcome and questions to answer on both sides, but the United States is making a strategic bet on India’s future – that India’s greater role on the world stage will enhance peace and security … ”

She said that the US was expanding its bilateral partnership with India and actively supporting India’s Look East involvement with South-east Asia and North-East Asia, including through a new US-India-Japan trilateral dialogue.

State-owned Indian and Vietnamese companies signed the enhanced oil and gas cooperation agreement in New Delhi on October 12, despite Beijing’s opposition. An energy newspaper published by the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, warned on October 16 that India was ”playing with fire” by agreeing to explore for oil and gas in disputed areas of the South China Sea, and that ”challenging the core interests of a large, rising country” would only lead to crushing defeat.

The cooperation agreement with Hanoi, signed in the presence of Vietnam’s President Truong Tan Sang, who was on a visit to India, came just a day after Vietnam signed a vague set of principles with China on settlement of their maritime disputes in the South China Sea, which Vietnam continues to refer to as its East Sea.

At the same time, a meeting in Beijing between the party chiefs of China and Vietnam issued a soothing joint statement enjoining both countries to ”maintain a cool-headed and restrained attitude (and) avoid taking any acts that could complicate or expand the disputes”.

Whether this was a cave-in to Chinese pressure by Vietnam or a tactic to buy time remains to be seen. The test will be whether Vietnam and India proceed with their joint oil and gas development program in the South China Sea.

The staying power of the US in Asia may be called into question by America’s economic problems, budget cuts, and political gridlock among lawmakers over many policies in Washington.

Elsewhere in the world the US may be deeply resented for its intrusive policies. However, in Asia it is an indispensable part of the balance of power – one that is preferred by many countries in the region to an overweening China.

The writer is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South-East Asian Studies in Singapore.

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