Sun, Nov 28, 2010 - Page 9 News List

US and China seek to plot competing geopolitical realities in Asia

By Brahma Chellaney

US President Barack Obama’s 10 day Asian tour and the consecutive summit meetings of the East Asian Summit, the G20 and APEC have helped shine a spotlight on Asia’s challenges at a time when tensions between an increasingly ambitious China and its neighbors permeate the region’s geopolitical landscape.

Significantly, Obama restricted his tour to Asia’s leading democracies — India, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea — which surround China and are central to managing its rise. Despite this he spent all of last year assiduously courting the government in Beijing in the hope that he could make China a global partner on issues ranging from climate change to trade and financial regulation. The catchphrase coined by US Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg in relation to China, “strategic reassurance,” actually signaled US intent to be more accommodating toward China’s ambitions.

Now, with his China strategy falling apart, Obama is seeking to do exactly what his predecessor attempted — line up partners as an insurance policy in case China’s rising power slides into arrogance. Other players on the grand chessboard of Asian geopolitics also are seeking to formulate new equations, as they concurrently pursue strategies of hedging, balancing and bandwagoning.

A fast-rising Asia has, moreover, has become the fulcrum of global geopolitical change. Asian policies and challenges now help shape the international economy and security environment.

However, major power shifts within Asia are challenging the continent’s own peace and stability. With the specter of strategic disequilibrium looming large in Asia, investments to help build geopolitical stability have become imperative.

China’s lengthening shadow has prompted a number of Asian countries to start building security cooperation on a bilateral basis, thereby laying the groundwork for a potential web of interlocking strategic partnerships. Such cooperation reflects a quiet desire to influence China’s behavior positively, so that it does not cross well-defined red lines or go against the self-touted gospel of its “peaceful rise.” However, building genuine partnerships is a slow process, because it demands major accommodation and adjustment on both sides.

The US, for example, has worked hard in recent years to co-opt India in a “soft alliance” shorn of treaty obligations. Yet, despite a rapidly warming bilateral rapport and Obama’s recent statement calling India the “cornerstone of America’s engagement in Asia,” conflicting expectations and interests often surface.

The US is now courting Vietnam as well and the two countries are even negotiating a civilian nuclear deal. The Cold War legacy, however, continues to weigh down thinking in Hanoi and Washington to some extent.

Within Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party, there are deep divisions over the country’s relations with the US. Even as Vietnam moves closer to the US as a hedge against China’s muscular strategy, some Vietnamese leaders fear that the US remain committed to regime change.

After all, despite Burma’s strategic importance vis-a-vis China and Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house detention, the US continues to enforce stringent sanctions against that country, with the aim of toppling its government. In the process, Burma has become more dependent than ever on China.

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