Monday, June 29, 2015

The US’ “Asia Pivot” is in Doldrums

16.06.2015 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

The US’ “Asia Pivot” is in Doldrums

If the US’ “Asia Pivot” was to be described in one sentence, it would be “encirclement” of its two most important strategic peers in the world: Russia and China. The idea of “encirclement” was further based upon building a chain of allies across Asia, which is somehow now suffering from standstill. As it stands, not only is the US not succeeding in securing that chain of allies, but the ‘counter-economic-offensive’ of Russia and China has struck a heavy blow to the US ambitions as well.

As far as the question of the effectiveness and the success of “Asia Pivot” is concerned, one can evaluate it by emphasizing the fact that in its bid to strengthen its weak position, the US did not hesitate to virtually accept Iran’s erstwhile position on its nuclear programme. The fast changing situation inside Afghanistan and in Central Asian region must have compelled the US to make a serious attempt to wean Iran to its side so that the Iranian route to the Caspian Sea could be opened to use for the former. In other words, in the US’ new strategic calculations with regard to its position in this part of the word, Iran has come to occupy a significant position, and as such, Iran is most likely to take strategic advantage of it in order to strengthen its position against Saudi led “Sunni” block in the Middle East.

However, the success of the “Asia Pivot” is not dependent upon Iran alone; it is rather more deeply dependent upon that chain of allies the US originally conceived of as vital in this strategy. Iran, as is obvious, is only one link in that chain. Therefore, its position and its role in in facilitating the “Asia Pivot” must not be over-emphasized.

Although it is believed that the on-going crisis in the Middle East have impacted the progress of the “Asia Pivot”, the fact is that the US has not been able to succeed in securing the kind of agreements with its East Asian allies it wanted to secure. East Asia, as it turns out, is not waiting for the US, nor is it willing to engage with the US on such terms as would jeopardize their relations with Russia and China. Major countries in the region, including America’s key allies and its top emerging rival, are actively jockeying for influence, assertively reassessing their bi-lateral relations with their neighbors and generally stirring for what could become a significant realignment of power in the world’s fastest-growing region specifically, and in the world generally. It is increasingly become clear with each day passing that the post-cold war balance of power has now changed a lot, and that global politics is no longer solely dominated by the US.

The recalcitrant behaviour of the US’ erstwhile allies, in this behalf, is only a reaction to this changing global political realities. Not only this, China is also actively involved in jeopardizing the “Asia Pivot” by exploiting rivalry between two of the US’ main allies in the region: South Korea and Japan. Tensions between the two American allies, which stem from a troubled history, particularly events that transpired during World War II, continue to flare from time to time and are always a source of trouble for the US to get over it. South Korea wants to see genuine repentance from Tokyo, in addition to compensation, for Japanese actions during the war, notably on the so-called comfort women, as the Korean women forced into sexual slavery for the benefit of Japanese soldiers were called.

China, meanwhile, is deliberately working to profit from the dispute between Japan and South Korea with a strong, top-level diplomatic offensive to complement the South Korea’s considerable economic muscle. Chinese policy, and priorities, were markedly evident during Chinese President’s last year visit to South Korea. Making an unprecedented move, and breaking with the tradition, Xi Jingping travelled to South Korea before travelling to North Korea. Not only was it an indication of Chinese policy to sabotage the “pivot” by embarking on offensive diplomacy but also a clear message to the young North Korean leader who has presided over a deteriorating relationship with Beijing. But more than a mere warning to North Korea, the Chinese gesture was meant to warmly embrace South Korea. That the tour was meant to hit at the heart of South Korea-Japan rivalry became self-evident in one of the speeches Xi delivered during the visit. In the speech delivered to Korean students, Xi not only spoke of Japanese military aggression during World War II, but also of the time 400 years ago when China’s Ming rulers sent soldiers to help Korea fend off Japanese invaders.

Apart from winning the US allies to its side, China, in partnership with Russia mainly, has also launched an “economic offensive” in the shape of Asian Infrastructure and Development Bank. Under Chinese stewardship, a new and potentially disruptive player in the development banking landscape, the AIIB, which was initially proposed in 2013 by President Xi Jingping, has gathered a lot of steam in the past few months, and has become the primary source of attraction for the erstwhile US allies in the region. In other words, this initiative has alone done so much damage to the US position in the region that no limited military conflict could do. As it stands, the Bank’s stated mission is to “focus on the development of infrastructure and other productive sectors in Asia.” It has attracted 57 founding member countries. This group includes some of America’s closest allies — first the UK, followed by Germany, France, South Korea, and Israel, among others. The U.S. and Japan are, as should have been expected, two of the most prominent players to decline membership. Although this Bank is by far much smaller, in terms of the capital it has, than World Bank and Asian Development Bank, however, with so many major countries on board, the AIIB poses a credible alternative to incumbent development banking systems like the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and others that have been in place, largely unchallenged, for 70 years. It’s a big shake-up for the development world, and a very suitable alternative to many a state in the region which do wish to get out of the dollar-oriented, US dominated, economic system.

The Chinese-Russian endeavor is, perhaps, the strongest response to the “Asia Pivot”, which not only meant to encircle and contain China but, at the same time, also aimed at integrating itself into the US led global economic system dominated by dollar. The initiative to establish a different currency system and the related development of the AIIB have thus clearly established the failure of the US ‘dream’ of having China into the trap.

However, apart from attempting to structure an altogether ‘new economic system’, China, by default, is not that much integrated in the current global economic system being virtually run by the World Bank and the IMF. This can be illustrated in this way: China is now the world’s second largest economy—the largest if measured in terms of purchasing-power parity; however, its contribution and its voting power in the IMF is roughly equivalent to that of the Netherlands and Belgium combined. It is certainly much less than China’s economic worth. And, it is certainly a bad omen for the US policy to have China integrated into global economic system.

On politico-military front, China is equally aggressively asserting its space. Not only is she reclaiming land and building an airstrip on the disputed Spratly Islands, creating what the Pentagon has called “facts on the water,” but also actively engaged in rash island-building program in the South China Sea. Although the US has signaled to send its Navy in the region to ensure “freedom of navigation”, it is quite obvious that the US cannot afford to confront China militarily; after all, China is one of the most important investors in the USA itself. Chinese presence in the US can be assessed from the fact that between 2011 and 2013, the value of China’s mergers and acquisitions (M&A) in the United States exceeded the value of US merger and acquisitions deals in China. Similarly, between 2011 and 2012, Chinese FDI flows into the US exceeded US FDI flows into China. While it is too early to call this a permanent turning point, Chinese companies are also certainly poised to deepen their presence in the US with the passage of time. Given these trends, it can hardly be expected that the USA can or should even think of engaging in a military conflict with China.

In this context, it is quite an evident fact that China is playing a long game, and it is scoring points slowly but steadily while the US struggles to carry out its much-advertised “pivot.” With US attention currently occupied by Iraq, Syria and now Yemen, developments in Asia that clamor for closer attention from the US once again seem to be getting drowned out by the din from the Middle East. However, it is also a fact that the US-Iran rapprochement is kind of a US response to Chinese assertiveness in East Asia. The US policy, in this regard, can be summarized in this way: if China gets hold over East Asia, the US can manipulate energy rich regions of West and Central Asia through Iran. And, if the US can bring this region under its control, it can not only manipulate the flow of energy to China and other East Asian states and thereby impact their economic growth, but also cause trouble for another major power: Russia. The US strategy is, therefore, two edged: one of the one hand, it aims to strengthen its position in the Middle East, and on the other, it aims to maintain political influence in the Eastern and Central Asian regions, enough to prevent China-Russia alliance from establishing total hegemony. Notwithstanding the strategic aim of the US, it seems quite improbable that the US would, at least in the near future, be able to secure any major victory. Whether or not its position is weak can be a moot question; however, it is quite certain that its competitors—Russia and China—are much stronger than ever, and are therefore in a much better position to put the “pivot” in the ‘dustbin’ of geo-politics.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

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