Douglas Paal of the Carnegie Endowment recently commented on America’s bustling and reformed—we can only hope for the long term—foreign policy in the Asia Pacific region, calling the move “the most comprehensive burst of diplomatic and military activity in Asia, particularly South-East Asia, in decades.”¹
The moves he was referring to: the US military has recently resumed ties with Kopassus, the Indonesian special ops group accused of widespread human rights abuses during the transition from power during President Suharto’s 1998 fall from grace at the tail end of the great Asian economic collapse. Obama has tried repeatedly to engage the Burmese military junta, led by Senior General Than Shwe, sending Sen. Jim Webb (Dem., VA) and Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell to meet and greet the rogue state’s top leaders.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in July’s annual ASEAN Regional Forum in Hanoi, recently raised the territorial conflicts over the South China Sea to the level of a “national interest,” mimicking China’s declaration of two “core national interests,” including the South China Sea dispute—it lays claims to several island areas: the Spratly’s and the Paracels to name the hot ones—and the issue of Taiwan’s political status. China insists on bilateral dialogue as a means of taking on each of the smaller parties involved in the ongoing maritime conflict, including Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei. The area has been particularly heated lately: in March, North Korea is believed to have sunk a South Korean ship; China has detained nine Vietnamese fishermen on charges of intruding into their waters last month; and Japan recently caved under pressure from Beijing, releasing the captain of a Chinese fishing boat that had strayed into what Tokyo perceives as its waters.
The US military this summer participated in joint exercises at sea with South Korea’s navy, and deals made with Vietnam this year signal the highest point of military cooperation between Washington and Ha Noi (on the 35th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War).
Of course, Chinese President Hu Jintao has his reasons to be fuming and paranoid about these amplified activities in the region surrounding his nation. With the ongoing currency wars, Beijing is under increasing US pressure to appreciate its currency value in order to raise the price of exports to a more realistic price competitive with US and global products. Many Chinese perceive this as a conspiracy to slow China’s growth. In many ways, US foreign policy is busily trying to secure regional ties in an effort to balance geopolitical power in the region. This is a natural process, even if it is labeled a “containment” strategy.
China’s lack of transparency is equally unsettling. Both players must be ready to discuss the issues on the table in a multilateral setting. China does not appear willing to do so, and has continually rebuffed efforts to open dialogue in the ARF (ASEAN Regional Forum). The first ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting showed signs that US-China tensions are cooling—for now. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was able to shake hands and smile with his Beijing counterpart, Gen. Liang Guanglie.
The Economist’s Banyan column observed in August, “Absent without leave, America helped foster an overblown perception in the region of America’s decline and China’s ascent. It is now putting that right.”² Let us hope that the new US stance is concerned with more than just global “perception” of the US as a superpower, though. The ASEAN region demands a delicate process of multilateral engagement on many issues, ranging from economic cooperation to nonproliferation treaties to solving the regime crises in North Korea and Myanmar. More conversation and concessions must be forthcoming if the two biggest powers in the world are to find equitable military and trade relations as well as incorporate the numerous other rising powers in Southeast Asia.
¹ Cited in The Banyan, “They Have Returned,” in the Economist, 12 August 2010.
² Ibid; emphasis added.