America Pivots to Asia

Capture“As the strategy of Asia Pivot plays out, US policy of positive engagement with India and non-assertive deterrence with China comes at a cost for smaller and strategically located countries like Nepal.”

 If one would ask what could be the most significant foreign policy initiative of US president Barack Obama during his seven years in the White House, and may be his entire term;an obvious answer is certain to be the “American Pivot to Asia”.

 No doubt, his administration moved America’s military presence out of Iraq as promised, charted an effective and workable exit strategy from Afghanistan and continued to counterbalance Russia’s belligerence in the Eurasian region as well as in the global stage.

In the case of Iraq and Afghanistan, these measures bailed the USA out of an enmeshing war initiated by his predecessor George W. Bush; and with regards to Russia, Obama Administration’s policy marked continuation of a conservative US bottom line: stand by the European allies.Wading through the Arab Spring, liberating Libya from the dictatorship of Gadhafi and Egypt of Mubarak happened in response to the local churning.

 Therefore, the most original contribution of President Barack Obama to the American foreign policy is the Asia Pivot, which has already started re-balancing Asia-Pacific’s political and security landscape albeit in a lower yet increasingly longer-term profile. This policy, on the one hand, acknowledges longstanding US and Asia-Pacific relationship, and on the other, prepares platform for future policy configurations in favour of the current world order.

 This article attempts to briefly examine the key operational ingredients of the construct of Asia Pivot and tries to touch upon what implications it will have in store for smaller and less powerful countries like Nepal.

 The cogs of the pivot

 America’s Asia Pivot involves two basic components of trade and defense,both complementing one another. Properly explaining this policy entails understanding Asian input to the postwar world order that saw Japan and South Korea emerge as the indispensable partners of the US-led democratic coalition. As the two Asian powers economically progressed from the rubble of the Second World War, their trade relations with the US jumped up.  Australia, another natural US ally in the Pacific, remained a part of this equation right from the beginning, leading eventually to the recent free trade arrangement between democratic Asia and the Americas under Trans-Pacific Partnership.

 Apart from laying the foundation of political and economic transformation in the Asian continent, the Second World War also reshaped defense relations between the US and the Asia-Pacific. American military bases in the Philippines, South Korea and Japan guarded Asian frontiers during the Cold War, and now seek to offer deterrence to the Chinese assertion in the South China Sea and Senkaku Islands. Giving additional impetus to its existing military engagements in the Pacific, the US in early 2013, moved its 3,000 Marines to a base near the city of Darwin,Australia.

 “Major operational forces of the Asia Pivot are Japan, South Korea and Australia. While China is treated as a competing power and a likely challenger, confusion persists regarding the enlistment of India despite both sides willing.”

 The most immediate motivation behind Asia Pivot seems to be the Obama Administration’s desire to end the George Bush era fixation with the Middle East. Moving away from overstretching hard-power in the name of fighting terrorism, Barack Obama tries to balance his foreign policy moves by a careful mixture of hard and soft powers, with an overarching objective of preserving the postwar world order, in which the USA is left as the lone superpower.

 This objective, however, meets with a severe policy dilemma vis-à-vis Asia Pivot as soon as it arrives in China and India.

 Let’s take China first. Since the great story of Chinese economic progress turned into a sort of miracle in the past twenty-five years, things haven’t gone positive in China for the United States. Trade between the two countries surged in an unprecedented level only to change the economic balance in favour of China, which has now replaced the US from the list of top economic power of the world in terms of both capital accumulation and Gross National Product. Yes, the US can take a solace in a fact that without adjustments for Purchasing Power Parity, US economy is still larger than that of China. But this hardly means anything noteworthy as equal amount of money can buy more in China than in the US.

China’s economic progress reflects very well and quite strongly in its military might. Its People’s Liberation Army is the largest in the world; it is the top defense spender closely following the number-one-placed US; and it aggressively modernizes its military technology, giving equal priority to its lethal edge on land, air and sea.

 The US badly needs to do business with China. But its policy conundrum stems from corresponding doubts regarding Chinese security intentions, calling for an Asia Pivot towards exclusion, and rather encirclement, of China. Although conventionally considered a quiet and rather reluctant military player, China’s new found “aggression” in South China Sea raises alarms among the US allies and its Pacific partners.

 That China enjoys sovereignty over large swaddle of this resource rich Pacific bay is a fact well-recognized. What really seems to disturb is China’s propensity of getting into friction with the Philippines and Vietnam in an intense psychological (so far) battle of controlling resources, namely oil, gas and fisheries.

 Add to this the American fears of permanent Chinese footprints in the Middle East and Africa, which, if not contained, could limit the US preeminence, and gradually replace it in these geographies.

 Then, see India, a continuous work in progress over the past decade.The friendship between US and India advanced to the level of “strategic partnership” since 2008 Civil Nuclear Agreement. But as dubbed in the metaphor of an elephant, India’s evolution towards being a US ally has been rather slow. Both appear willing as unease over growing Chinese influence in South Asia has crept in their mindset, as observed during the January 2015 summit between US president Barack Obama and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

 Stephen P.  Cohen of Brookings Institution famously said after the much hyped summit that India was still a friend and not an ally. Traditionally, India has insisted to play greater role on its own in the global arena. However, things appear to be poised to change under its charismatic nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi. His administration aspires to make India Asia’s largest defense manufacturer, plans to invest billions of dollars in improving infrastructure and demonstrates a more business-friendly avatar than those of the Indian governments of recent past. As Mr. Modi himself adopts maximal approach in several policy fronts, the quest for newer technology could gravitate him comfortably towards the US; while on the other side, Obama Administration appears to appreciate that India, together with Japan and Australia, could form the most effective cog of its Asia Pivot contraption. The rhetoric of the world’s largest democracy moving together with the world’s oldest seems to enjoy a great appeal among the policy-makers of both countries.

 Message for small powers

Asia Pivot plays out as a grand foreign affairs strategy where the US as the lone superpower dictates the rules of the game. In an environment with built-in ability for the US to set the pivot’s agenda, it chooses friends, determines allies and picks up foes at will. This requires on part of the US simultaneous engagement with several regional powers, giving them the incentive of their own sphere of supremacy in return of their cooperation with the US policy at the larger stage.

 “The success of Asia Pivot depends on the US ability to appease regional powers, giving them primacy on regional issues in lieu of their support to the US policy at bigger stage. This forces the US to ignore the needs of smaller powers, which are eventually likely to be left on the mercy of regional bullies.”

All this comes with a cost for smaller countries. Let me explain this with an example of Nepal. The year 2005 was momentous for Nepal in many ways. The Maoists were joining peace- process laying their arms after a decade-long insurgency;the King had just taken over absolute powers; and the democratic forces were discredited and left in the lurch. US ambassador to Nepal at the time- Mr. James Francis Moriarty- got to know that the now famous “Twelve-point Agreement” was being drafted in New Delhi which would eventually form an “unlikely” alliance between the Maoists (who wanted to capture the Nepali state for a communist regime) and the democratic political parties(who sought to preserve the architecture of a competitive democracy). Although not as a part of the Asia pivot strategy, US willingness to provide the “Regional Actor” status to India prevented Mr. Moriarty from shooting down the basis of the alliance which he personally thought was “unholy”.

Like Nepal, many smaller countries would like to see the presence of the USA as a cushion to balance regional hegemonies they are faced with. But with the US seeing their problems through the prism of regional actors, the regional orders of the globe are likely to be more tumultuous.The world has just seen how single stroke of an election in January 2015 pulled Sri Lanka out of the Chinese embrace only to send it back in India’s.

 Dhakal is a political scientist and commentator in Kathmandu.

Follow him in twitter at: @tikapd

Write to him at: [email protected]

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