The US preoccupation with the “war on terror” and military engagement in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past decade has distracted it from its focus on the Asia-Pacific region.
This may be changing, the main reason being that China is now making waves in the region and causing disquiet among its neighbors. This was evident last year over a whole range of regional issues.
When he came to power, US President Barack Obama was hoping to create a peaceful partnership with China and there was a series of high-level visits with that objective in mind.
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton thanked China for continuing to buy US bonds and announced that human rights issues wouldn’t be allowed to derail US-China relations.
On the other hand, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) worried about China’s investments in US treasury notes in light of the economic recession in that country and when Obama visited China, Beijing didn’t seem to regard the visit as anything special.
Indeed, China appeared to regard such special gestures by the Obama administration as a sign of US weakness, and hence an opportunity to advance its own ambitions.
This is reminiscent of former first secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Nikita Khrushchev, who sought to push that nation’s global agenda and in so doing underestimated former US president John F. Kennedy, who took power in 1961.
Soviet installation of missiles in Cuba led directly to the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, the first case of possible nuclear Armageddon.
While this is not to suggest that China might be tempted to do something equally dangerous and outrageous, the point is that the US is starting to rethink its policy in the Asia-Pacific region in the wake of China’s determination to push its own regional agenda and rejection of US overtures for a peaceful partnership.
The time has, therefore, come to consider that China is more interested in a hegemonic role, seeking to edge out the US, if possible.
In other words, China is not a partner but a serious challenger and a threat.
Australia, a US ally, spelled out the Chinese threat to the region in its 2009 defense white paper, as a result of which that country is reinvigorating its defense ties with the US and Japan and launching an annual strategic dialogue with South Korea.
During a recent visit to Japan, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard told the Japan National Press Club: “The region is in strategic flux, where changing power relativities are playing out against a background of historical mistrust and conflict.”
“Stability and security depend on the integral role of the US and on developing the right regional architecture to encourage co-operation on security challenges,” she said.
Gillard could not have been clearer about the new destabilizing element in the region.
Canberra, therefore, has a challenge of its own to reconcile its strategic alliance with the US and its primary economic relationship with China.
Beijing is not terribly happy over Australia’s security alliance with the US, but is resigned to it.
As a sop to China, the Gillard government has agreed to visits by Chinese navy ships, but the central strategic tenet of Australia’s policy — its military alliance with the US — remains directed at the dealing with a potential future Chinese military threat.