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.
Japan and South Korea feel similarly threatened.
At the same time, other regional countries are busy developing their own options.
None of them believe China’s routine assertion that it is not a hegemonic power.
In the US, there is an increasing realization that it is time to wrap up military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq to focus on the serious challenge posed by a very assertive China.
The killing of Osama bin Laden is likely to hasten this process.
In a wide-ranging article on the Obama administration’s foreign policy in the New Yorker, Ryan Lizza wrote: “One of [national security adviser Thomas] Donilon’s overriding beliefs, which Obama adopted as his own, was that America needed to rebuild its reputation, extricate itself from the Middle East and Afghanistan, and turn its attention toward Asia and China’s unchecked influence in the region.”
Similarly, US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell has said: “We’ve been on a little bit of a Middle East detour over the course of the last 10 years.”
However, “our future will be dominated utterly and fundamentally by developments in Asia and the Pacific region,” he added.
This is not to suggest that the US and China are on course for confrontation in the short-term.
Indeed, the two countries are periodically engaged in strategic and economic dialogue at high levels, designed to manage their often-prickly relationship.
In this, China’s poor human rights record is emerging as a difficult issue.
A case in point is the recent strategic and economic dialogue between the two countries in Washington where China’s crackdown on dissidents and other human rights issues was prominently highlighted by the US.
Indeed, a recent interview by Clinton with the Atlantic Monthly was released during the two-day talks, in which she labeled China’s human rights record as “deplorable.”
“They’re worried [about the Arab Spring or revolution], and are trying to stop history, which is a fool’s errand,” she said.
Considering that she had said human rights wouldn’t be allowed to derail Sino-US relations, during her earlier trip to China, this is quite a turn around in the US attitude to China’s violation of human rights.
According to the Guardian the two-day talks with the Chinese side ended with “worsening relations over censorship and crackdowns on dissidents.”
The US appears quite serious on censorship and human rights violations by China, and is dedicating more funds to developing technology able to overcome internet censorship.
It is interesting that Clinton herself has now become one of the many subjects banned by Chinese censors.
Chinese Internet censors “recently blocked search results for ‘Hillary Clinton’ after a speech championing Internet freedom,” the Guardian said.
China is paranoid about a “Jasmine Revolution” type popular uprising, which it believes has been encouraged by the US in North Africa and the Middle East.
Beijing also fears that the US is up to no good with its advocacy of human rights in China.
Only a paranoid and insecure regime would cleave to such fears and conspiracies.
It is always going be difficult to create a partnership for peace with China when its leadership is looking for phantoms everywhere.
As they strive to inoculate China from the revolutionary virus, Beijing’s record on human rights is likely to get worse not better.
Combined with China’s hegemonic designs on the Asia-Pacific region, the US is going to find it increasingly difficult to manage its relations with Beijing.
Precisely because of this, the US needs to pay greater attention to China’s so-called “peaceful rise”
Sushil Seth is a commentator based in Australia.