Not so long ago, many of US President Barack Obama’s detractors were heaping criticism on his administration for its alleged lack of engagement with Asia, which is rapidly emerging as both a source of wealth and a potential military flashpoint.
In books, articles and on talk shows, specialists like Simon Tay(戴尚志) and others warned of a vacuum as the US was brought to its knees by the global financial crisis and military adventures from which it has had difficulty extricating itself.
While analysts argued that the US had been displaced in the Asia-Pacific by its own weaknesses and the rise of China, they also warned against what they perceived as signs of isolationism in Washington under an administration that has been weighed down by intractable domestic matters.
It was that inattention — a continuation of former US president George W. Bush’s selective engagement of Asia, focused almost solely on the “war on terror” — that allowed China to expand its power in the region, to such an extent that the US genuinely fears its own influence there may be a thing of the past.
The unstable mix of nationalism and expansionism that has characterized China’s rise in the past few years, however, is now forcing many of its neighbors, which until recently had bought Beijing’s “peaceful” rise, to revisit the assumptions that underpin their national security policies. As a consequence, what is emerging is a rebirth of the “spokes” or bilateral agreements that marked US engagement in Asia for the past half century.
The most striking symbol of this development is the burgeoning military relationship between the US and a country that 35 years ago was its sworn enemy after years of traumatic war — Vietnam.
Washington and Hanoi are cozying up on a number of issues, from civilian nuclear fuel and technology to handling claims by China and other countries over the South China Sea.
As China’s power relative to its neighbors continues to increase, the many countries that have disputes with Beijing over islands, natural resources or territory, have had to devise a mechanism to address the China challenge.
One would be to gang up on Beijing, at regional forums such as ASEAN. The problem with this approach, is that Asia’s regional organizations have little experience addressing security issues, and its constituents are too disparate to converge into a single voice likely to make Beijing reconsider its position.
The other option is to turn to Washington as a security guarantor, a role it has performed, with much success since the end of World War II. The distraction of Bush’s “war on terror” and military adventurism gave every indication that the US was on its way out in Asia. Obama’s first year in office provided little to indicate a policy change was in the offing.
This situation might have held, as long as Beijing kept its part of the bargain and continued to behave as a responsible stakeholder. However, given recent signs that this may no longer be the case, Washington has little choice but to re-engage with the Asia-Pacific, as the region has become too important to the global economy to be left to its own devices.
Unfortunately, this development risks creating a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the US strategy exacerbates fears in Beijing that it is being encircled by US allies — the latest of which is Vietnam — in a bid to contain it.