Today the freshly re-elected President Obama is heading for Asia, taking in Cambodia, Burma and Thailand. His trip, the first since he won the election, is clearly aimed to secure friends in a region that is increasingly important. Sadly the core US strategy of military presence hasn’t changed, and for as long as America believes it can guide China’s development through brute force, tensions will only escalate.
One of the centrepieces of the Obama administration has been its military pivot towards Asia, moving away from middle-east engagements and towards ensuring China doesn’t dominate the region. The policy epitomises American thinking that most global problems can be solved through military presence, but sadly they’ve ignored the benefits of diplomacy and humanitarian assistance.
Concentrating on military strength will only increase the pressure between the USA and China, souring international relations and ruining the possibilities for meaningful alliances to develop. The US has been increasing regional pressure, moving military assets into the region (such as an increased marine presence in Darwin Australia) and pressing its allies to allow the stationing of military bases in their territory (Thailand).
However, this emphasis on military presence is doing more to alienate Asian nations than ensure their support. Thailand is gradually standing up to American pressure and beginning to look towards Chinese friendship, which it sees as more mutually beneficial. Other countries will be increasingly enticed to do the same as China’s pull becomes stronger.
China is taking a different tack to its international relations, one virtually guaranteed to have more long-lasting success. I’ve written elsewhere about China’s relatively slow military development, and how Chinese military spending won’t reach US levels until a full 10 years (2035) after it becomes the world’s biggest economy. This fact demonstrates that whilst China might occasionally engage in military posturing with other major regional players, it is not aggressively pursuing military capabilities.
“While developing ourselves, we must bring benefits to our neighbours and deepen the bond of mutual benefit with them. Only in this way would we be able to preserve peace and stability in the region and move forward with our neighbours toward shared prosperity and a common destiny.”
By getting closer to its regional neighbours and making sure its own development helps other Asian nations, China is undermining outdated American efforts. For years China has been investing in regional ties by offering loans, aid ($2.1bn since ’92) and technical assistance to countries such as Cambodia.
Over the last 6 years, more than $8bn has been invested in Cambodia by China, paling $900million invested by American firms. This is the kind of assistance the USA is starting to slowly realise it needs provide, but it no longer has the free-flowing finances that once gave America the ability to project its ambitions around the globe. This is not to say that the US is impotent on the world stage, but it needs to look past outdated military solutions.
American human rights and democratic procedure are envied around the world, and can certainly provide a template for reform in countries such as Burma, one of the stops on Obama’s tour. I am by no means saying American democracy is perfect; issues surrounding lobbying and money in politics are well-known.
However, the fundamental entrenchment of civil liberties is highly attractive to many who advocate the type of virtues espoused by Burma’s opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. China may be the primary economic partner for Japan, Australia and other Asian players, but for security they turn to America and will continue to do so until China proves it can be trusted.
It will take both nations to cool international relations and prevent a catastrophic build-up of tension. America must get past its own ego and realise China is not inherently evil; America cannot lead the world forever. It may have a different political history, but China’s economics are increasingly pro-market and its human rights are developing at a pace that puts historic Western liberal development to shame.
Combatting corruption, working with the US on trans-Pacific free trade agreements and accelerating the process of democratisation that has begun in rural areas will all encourage faith in China’s ability to assume the top spot at the global table.
- China weighs on Obama’s trip to South East Asia (chinadailymail.com)
- Obama to make historic Burma visit during three-day Asia trip (guardian.co.uk)
- Obama’s Road to Myanmar Is Paved With New Asia Intentions (nytimes.com)
- Obama trip seen part of Asia pivot policy – UPI.com (upi.com)