Shen Qiang

How to Assess Obama Administration's New Geostrategy toward Asia

By Shen Qiang, Director,
Department of Research Chinese People's Institute of Foreign Affairs

Извор/Source: International Strategic Studies, 3, 2011, serial No. 101, pp 29-38, China Institute for International Strategic Studies, Beijing, China

Објављено по посебној дозволи у е-библиотеци „Философија рата и мира“ у оквиру Културне мреже „Пројекта Растко“ • Published under a special permission in “Philosophy of War and Peace” E-library by Project Rastko Cultural Network

Abstract; In response to the complex and profound changes in the world geopolitical landscape in recent years, the Obama Administration, since day one, has put more emphasis on Asia and adopted a new geostrategy toward this part of the world. Its main strategic intention is to tilt the geostrategic gravity from the Middle East and Central Asia to East Asia. The US has increased engagement with and input to Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia and South Asia, turning these three parts into tightly-connected key links in its new Asia geostrategy so as to extend the "three island-chains" it developed in Northeast and Southeast Asia in the Cold War period to South Asia. By so doing, the US seeks to reinforce and expand its presence in Asia and occupy the dominant position in regional geo-political landscape, prevent and contain any challenge to its advantageous position.

The recent years have seen the remarkable increase of Asia's importance and influence in the international economic, political and military affairs and the relative decrease of that of Europe. Responding to this significant change, the US has adjusted its global strategy, gradually tilting its geostrategic gravity from Europe to Asia. Since the Obama Administration took office, the US has adopted a new geostrategy toward Asia, paying greater attention to Asia with increased input and engagement. What is eye-catching more is the tilting of its geostrategic gravity from the Middle East and Central Asia to East Asia and the new developments of America's intensified strategic maneuvers and deployments in Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia and South Asia. As a matter of fact, these three parts have already become tightly-connected and indispensable links in the new US Asia geostrategy, crucial for the US' effort to strengthen and expand its military presence and consolidate its geopolitical predominance in Asia. This strategic move has profound and far-reaching impacts.

Its Strategic Intentions

Obama claimed himself the first "pacific president" in the early days of his presidency. It did not catch much attention at that time. In fact, behind this extraordinary and unique self-labeling is the hidden and profound geostrategic intentions and long-term goals of the US. People who now review the Obama Administration's new geostrategy toward Asia are easily brought home to the fact that this US president was actually implying the inseparable "natural link" between the US and Asia. What the US is seeking is not only permanent presence but also unrivalled dominance in Asia. This is what the "pacific president" really meant and the strategic target for the US to seek. And this is also the American logic and strategic thinking that people from outside can hardly understand and adapt to. From the very beginning, the Obama Administration's focus on Asia has put all his predecessors into the shade. As many as more than thirty visits have been made to Asia by high-ranking US government and military officials in less than two years, which is rarely seen in the history of US-Asia relations. These frequent high level visits planned and arranged by the government show that the focus is on Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia and South Asia. This is because these three parts are the key for the implementation of the Administration's new geostrategy toward Asia.

1. Northeast Asia is the first important link in the Obama Administration's new Asia geostrategy

To begin with, Northeast Asia is uniquely located from a strategic and geographical perspective. Sitting on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, Northeast Asia is the most direct corridor or a gateway for the US to enter the Asian continent. Permanent presence for the US in Northeast Asia means control over the bridge-head of Asia. This is why the US is determined to keep tight control.

The second reason has to do with the history of international relations. The US has kept the relationship of alliance with Japan and the ROK since the Cold War. The strategic intention at that time was mainly to confront with the USSR. But now, the main purpose is to prevent and contain China from challenging the vested strategic interests of the US in Asia. In the Cold War years, Japan and the ROK, though as US allies, had limited strategic value due to their limited national strength and influence. However, time has changed. The two countries now are not only among the top ten economic powers, but also among the strong military powers worldwide. Their strategic value is now crucial in the new US Asia geostrategy, making them America's indispensable strategic backing. More importantly, the US, Japan and the ROK share a strategic need to rely on one another to prevent and contain a developed China from challenging their vested interests. They also have the need to form a strategic synergy to prevent and contain Russia from its rise and to force the DPRK to give in. These are the root causes why today's geopolitics in Northeast Asia is still tinted with a Cold War mentality.

Thirdly, from a military perspective, the strategic value of Japan and the ROK is irreplaceable since the US is to enhance its input and deployment for the "three island-chains" to reinforce strategic besiege against China. One can even argue that without the coordination and support from these two military allies, the US may well fall into a strategic predicament of helpless isolation in Northeast Asia, or even worse, lose its footing and base in this region.

Fourthly, what has happened in the Six-Party Talks shows that the US' role and influence in the Korean Peninsula and the talks are outshined by those of China. Under such circumstances, if the US strengthens its alliances with Japan and the ROK, not only can it tighten the sanctions against the DPRK with their full support to force North Korea to submit, but also counterbalance China and offset the strategic pressure from its rise.

2. Southeast Asia is the second important link in the Obama Administration's new Asia geostrategy

Geographically speaking, both Southeast Asia and Northeast Asia belong to East Asia. With the deepening of the trend of regional cooperation, the two parts have become mutually interconnected and complementary key links in the new US Asia geostrategy. Furthermore, the two parts have historical origins and basis for the construction of the "three island chains" designed by the US back to the Cold War period.

Located at the heart of Southeast Asia, the South China Sea is an important waterway connecting Eurasia, the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean. For China, it is a hub of marine transportation with Southeast Asia, South Asia, Africa, Europe and Oceania as well as a main sea route for energy transportation and trade. Among the forty-odd marine routes connecting China to the rest of the world, more than thirty pass through the South China Sea region, making it become the lifeline for China's economic development. Thus it is not surprising that the US, never able to think beyond engagement plus containment in its China strategy, has come all the way to the South China Sea region and enhanced its strategic input and intervention in Southeast Asia. The US Navy regards the Malacca Strait and the Sund Strait, both located in the South China Sea area, as wartime strategic choke points. The Obama Administration has emphasized on many occasions its intention to 'return' to Southeast Asia since day one, and kept scaling up its political, economic and military input to develop bilateral and multilateral relations with Southeast Asian countries and bring them on board. Its main strategic intentions include:

1)To check the fast growing relations between China and Southeast Asian countries, and on that basis, obtain an advantageous position in the trilateral relations among China, the US and ASEAN.

2)To make use of the strategic need for and reliance on the US of Southeast Asian countries, especially Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei that have territorial disputes with China, to intervene in the South China Sea issue and make it an international one, thus throwing China into a passive situation with multilateral check against it, and gaining legitimacy for its presence and intervention in the region.

3)To develop strong alliances and reliable strategic forces for the US in Southeast Asia, an indispensable link in the US "three island-chains" strategy and make Southeast Asian countries an important and fresh force in executing its new Asia strategy.

3. South Asia is the third important link in the Obama Administration's new Asia geo-strategy

From a geo-strategic perspective, South Asia borders with Central Asia in the north, with the Middle East in the west and with Southeast Asia in the east. It is a strategic area crucial to hold the Indian Ocean and the Arab Sea. Its geo-graphic adjacency to Southeast Asia has made it a natural extension of America's Southeast Asia strategic link and a new key element in the intensified " three island-chains". Moreover, South Asia is also home to India and Pakistan, two major countries with great geostrategic value for the US.

Since the end of the Cold War, dramatic changes have taken place in the US-India relations. Once estranged and cold, the relationship has developed into a subtle and sophisticated strategic partnership with mutual strategic needs as well as converging and clashing strategic interests and thorny structural problems. As for the US and Pakistan, after a tortuous journey of ups and downs, their relations have also developed into a special partnership with both-mutual strategic needs and diverging strategic interests. In recent years, rapid economic growth and rising influence have elevated India's role and standing in international political affairs. The Pakistan's geo-strategic value for the US has also increased by the war on terrorism the US waged in Afghanistan. In addition, the cooperation between India and Southeast Asia has intensified in recent years. These developments will certainly be factored in by the US in its geo-strategic calculations to serve its own strategic interests. America's main strategic intentions for South Asia include the following:

First, in terms of relations among big powers, India has a double membership of the two major cooperation mechanisms for the emerging powers, i.e., BRIC and China-Russia-India Cooperation. The US, by bringing India on board and enhancing its strategic partnership with India, can sow discords into and restrict the development of these two mechanisms that are still in their infancy, and also produce the effect of a strategic check against China.

Second, check-and-balance tactics toward other powers is a familiar strategy taken by the US in its geopolitical gaming to gain advantage or even dominance. As far as the strategic gaming among the US, China, Russia and India is concerned, a closer US relationship with India can be used to check against China and Russia, lessen the strategic constraint from China-Russia-India trilateral cooperation and off-set the strategic pressure from China-Russia strategic partnership of coordination.

Third, India's geo-political influence is continuously rising across Asia. In recent years, the country has raised its traditional influence in South Asia, extended it to Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and even Northeast Asia. This is what the Obama Administration wants to make use of for its new Asia geo-strategy. US Deputy Secretary of State Steinberg made this very clear in his speech delivered at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars on 20 September last year. He said, "We see India as (an) East Asia country. We engage with them on issues like North Korea and the like because we think of the importance that India plays."

Fourth, the geo-strategic significance of US-Pakistan relations has three layers. 1. Pakistan has a special and irreplaceable role in the US war on terror in Afghanistan. 2. A special partnership with Pakistan enables the US to contain the China-Pakistan strategic partnership and to limit China's expansion of its influence in South Asia. 3. Paralleled development of relations with both India and Pakistan enables the US to check against India and gain advantage from both sides.

Its Strategic Backdrop

The end of the old bi-polar world and the tortuous evolution of the new multipolar one have prompted two major irreversible trends in the international situation. One is the international economic, trade and financial integration; and the other is the multi-polarization in international political affairs and international relations. On the whole, the US embraces and promotes the former and tries to make full use of it, given its unrivalled economic, trade and financial advantages. As for the latter, however, the US has exhausted every means to go in the opposite direction. The US has insisted on its ability to maintain its sole superpower status in a quite long period following the end of the bi-polar system and use this strategic opportunity to reshape a US-dominated new international political order.

Even today, the relentless pursuit of hegemony remains the part and parcel of the US global strategy. It's sink or swim for the US. In a speech delivered at the Council on Foreign Affairs on 8 September 2010, the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proclaimed, "Indeed, the complexities and connections of today's world have yielded a new American Moment, a moment when our global leadership is essential." "This is a moment that must be seized through hard work and bold decisions to lay the foundations for lasting American leadership for decades to come. " She also claimed that the America's global leadership is still indispensable, and that the US "can, must and will" exercise its leadership in the new century, even if it must often lead in new ways.

Given the changing international and regional circumstances, the US faces favorable factors as well as unfavorable restrictive factors in maintaining its lasting leadership for decades to come.

1. The three favorable factors for US

1) The US can still maintain its only superpower status in the international balance of power for a quite long time. This has been the consensus and basic strategic judgment reached between the Democrats and the Republicans. Despite the trend towards multi-polarity and the relative decline of the US, America's dominance will not be fundamentally challenged in the foreseeable future. As such, the US sees this period as a period of important opportunity to reshape a US-dominated international political order.

2)The US will retain its absolute military superiority for a long time to come. America's military input far exceeds that of other countries. Statistics show that America's military expenditure accounts for over 40% in the world's total, and the figure is very likely to exceed US $ 3. 5 trillion for the next five years. The Quadrennial Defense Review Report, published in 2010, pointed out that "America's interests and role in the world require the armed forces with unmatched capabilities." Big military spending compounded by the world's most state-of-the-art military technologies have made it difficult for other military powers to outshine the US.

3)In terms of soft power, the US will also keep its relative advantage over other major powers for a long time. It is precisely by making a tactical use of America's soft power in maneuvering geopolitics that the Obama Administration has successfully shifted its strategic pressure onto China. With the rapid rise of China, emerging economies like India as well as developed ones represented by the EU and Japan all harbor suspicion and vigilance against China. Shared feelings have prompted these countries to intensify strategic interaction and reliance, which has added to the strategic pressure on China, increased America's room for strategic maneuver among major world powers, and thus shifted or eased strategic pressure for the US as the only superpower. From a geopolitical point of view, the rising vigilance of Japan, the ROK, India and ASEAN countries, against a stronger China and the consequential intensification of their strategic interaction with and the reliance on the US have provided the US with more space for maneuver.

2. The unfavorable restrictive factors for US also lie in three aspects

l)In terms of geopolitical developments in Asia, the overall control and influence of the US are relatively ebbing. Despite many major obstacles in the regional cooperation process in Asia, countries in this region are having closer business ties and experiencing deeper integration and interdependence, and their business ties with and dependence on the US are declining. The gradual improvement and strengthening of regional cooperation mechanisms also means more autonomy and independence in their relations with the US. With economic relations and trade among Northeast, Southeast, South and Central Asia growing and deepening by the day, regional integration in Asia has been facilitated. This will naturally lead to the weakening of Asia's business ties with the US and the decline in dependence.

2)In terms of the geopolitical developments in Europe, the overall control and influence of the US are also on the decline. In spite of the many obstacles in the European integration process due to the impact of the international financial crisis and the euro crisis, Europe's independence in its relations with the US still continues to grow. Especially with the entry into force of the Treaty of Lisbon , the EU integration is gradually moving ahead in twists and turns and America's leading role in this process is to be continuously weakened. This is the general trend.

3)In terms of the evolution of the international balance of power, America's control over multilateral mechanisms is relatively decreasing. Over the years, with the rapid rise of the emerging economies represented by the BRICS and their enhanced influence, the traditional advanced economies represented by the US have gone down slope with their influence subsiding. Major unfavorable changes have taken place within multilateral mechanisms for the US. America's control over the UN Security Council, the largest multilateral arena, is weakening with increasing constraints from the other four permanent members in dealing with major international and regional issues. In the world economy, trade and finance, America's overall control over the three most authoritative multilateral mechanisms of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization is falling with the weight and influence of emerging economies represented by the BRICS significantly increasing and their check against the US intensifying. Moreover, with the enhanced role and status of the emerging economies in the G20, the US will be increasingly unable to act as freely as it wants. And within the group of developed countries, the US has severe differences with Europe and Japan on major global issues such as global governance, economic development pattern and allocation of economic interests. Some European countries, represented by France, have been insistently calling for a change in the dominance of the US dollar as an international reserve currency. This battle for strategic interests between the US and Europe, which is rarely seen after the end of the Cold War, will fundamentally weaken the long-standing hegemonic advantage of the US dollar in international finance. And more importantly, such major change in strategic posture will lead to the decline of US leading role in the developed world.

Its Strategic Impacts

The new Asia geostrategy pursued by the Obama Administration indicates that the US has not paid more attention to its major unfavorable restrictive factors it currently faces in the world geopolitics. What they emphasize more is the favorable conditions, for now and for a long time to come, its three advantages, namely, the advantage of being the single superpower, the absolute military superiority and the relative advantage in soft power, and to play the unique role of these advantages. The new Asia strategy by the Obama Administration also reveals a new trend of US global strategy, which includes giving greater attention to Asia and inclining the strategic gravity from Europe to Asia. This major strategic move has a direct and far-reaching impact on the evolution of current and future international and regional situation, especially on the geopolitical developments in Northeast, Southeast and South Asia.

1. Major negative impact on the evolution of geopolitical landscape of Northeast Asia

In recent years, geopolitical situation in Northeast Asia is undergoing complex and profound changes brought by the impact of the tide of globalization. Especially the economic relations between the countries in the region are becoming increasingly closer and their interdependence are continuously expending and deepening in the process of the evolving economic re­gionalization. Nevertheless, we cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that the Cold War factors are still lingering on and the geopolitical landscape left from the Cold War period remains almost intact. In particular, the previous structure of political and military confrontation between the North and South Korea on the Peninsula is still there. The Cold War mentality and geo-strategy from the US to enhance its alliance with Japan and the ROK have become the most difficult and negative key factor and the biggest obstacle to change the geopolitical structure in Northeast Asia.

First, should the US continue to strengthen its military alliances with Japan and the ROK and work with them to scale up sanctions against the DPRK, the DPRK would respond by strong stubborn resistance and confrontation, which would form the vicious circle of pressure and counter-pressure, sanction and counter-sanction in DPRK's relations with the US, Japan and the ROK and make it more difficult for the Korean Peninsula to get out of the shadow of tension and turbulence.

Second, the prospects of the Six-Party Talks will be more unpredictable. The escalation of pressure and sanctions from the US, the ROK and Japan would not be possible to force the DRPK to return to the negotiation table. The serious confrontation between the DPRK and the other three parties would only make it harder for China to promote the resumption of talks. If the Six-Party Talks could not play its effective role and the relations between the DPRK and the other three remain tense, the Korean Peninsula would be plagued by tension and turbulence, and peace and stability of whole Northeast Asia would suffer another heavy blow.

Third, intensified US bilateral military alliances with Japan and the ROK and growing trilateral military cooperation and coordination have not only cemented America's dominance in its relations with Japan and the ROK, but also brought major negative impact on the geopolitical landscape in Northeast Asia, which should have been undergoing positive changes. The most evident impact is that Japan and the ROK are repeating the history of "leaving Asia for the US", giving rise to a new Cold War geopolitical pattern in the region. Especially since the outbreak of the Cheonan Incident and the ship collision near the Diaoyu Islands, the US has scaled up strategic interactions with the ROK and Japan with frequent joint military exercises. Such exercises are claimed to be targeted at the DPRK, but the real purpose is to flex their military muscles to other countries in the region for strategic deterrence. Such moves have added new Cold War elements to the evolving geopolitical situation in Northeast Asia.

Fourth, the US is deliberately reinforcing and expanding the "three island-chains" and repeating what they did in the Cold War era. This constitutes a major threat to the security of China, Russia and the DPRK and will surely cause their resistance and confrontation. If that was the case, there would be new constraints hindering the positive strategic interactions and sound development of the overall relations among China, the US, Russia, Japan, the ROK and the DPRK, and even add new factors for competition and confrontation.

Fifth, the deliberate emphasis on America's military alliances with Japan and the ROK is bound to create major constraints to the budding trilateral cooperation mechanism among China, Japan and the ROK, and is likely to result in the abnormality of mutual constraints between the China-Japan-ROK economic cooperation and the US-Japan-ROK military alliances. In such a geopolitical pattern, the losers are China, Japan and the ROK and the only winner is the US, for China, Japan and the ROK all will rely more on the US and the US will enjoy stronger supremacy.

2. New factors of competition and conflict added to the geopolitical developments in Southeast Asia

In recent years, ASEAN together with China, Japan and the ROK have achieved unprecedented and substantive progress in the regional cooperation process. In 2010, ASEAN and China launched the free trade area as scheduled. This new type of cooperation mechanism has not only laid a major foundation for the deepening of economic cooperation and trade between the two sides, but also created enabling conditions for their coordination and cooperation in international and regional affairs. In the lace of the new developments in the geopolitical landscape in Southeast Asia, the US has felt a greater sense of loss. Since day one, the Obama Administration has worked hard to reverse this unfavorable situation by constantly scaling up input and intervention in the geopolitical situation in Southeast Asia in an attempt to arrest and reverse this developing trend. Such moves have the following negative impacts on the current and future geopolitical developments in Southeast Asia.

First, the Obama Administration has completely abandoned his predecessor's practice of strategic contraction in South­east Asia. The US has not only signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia with ASEAN, but also participated in the East Asia Summit. This new strategic move shows that the US will continue to scale up its input and intervention in Southeast Asia with a view to enhancing its influence in this region and gaining more control over regional affairs. It can be predicted that there will be more complex multilateral wrestling in future East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Regional Forum and that it will be even harder to handle regional affairs.

Second, the US has deliberately taken a hand in settling the issue of the South China Sea between China and some Southeast Asian countries and enhanced its military presence in the South China Sea. This does not help bringing a proper settlement to the issue. On the contrary, it will make the issue even more complicated with more elements of trouble and conflict.

Third, the US has tried hard to bring ASEAN countries on board and make them part of the enhanced "three island-chains". This has not only the effect on weakening China's increasing influence in Southeast Asia, but also on creating a "strategic besiege" against China. What is especially note-worthy is that the US has resumed the long-suspended military assistance to the Indonesian military, enhanced military cooperation with the country and sent an aircraft carrier combat group to an unprecedented joint military exercise in the South China Sea with Vietnam. This major strategic move of the Obama Administration speaks volumes about America's strengthened " strategic besiege" against China in its new Asia geo-strategy. This trend, if allowed to continue, will bring greater competition and conflict in China-US relations, greatly disturb the deepening of China-ASEAN friendly relations and cooperation and even hold back the whole East Asia cooperation process.

Fourth, the US has initiated the Lower Mekong Initiative and is working on the negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. These actions will offset the ongoing development of the East Asia regional cooperation process with ASEAN in the driver's seat. In particular, it will weaken the status of ASEAN in the geopolitical relations in Southeast Asia and add more uncertainties to the future development of the East Asia regional cooperation process.

3. Fresh impact on the geopolitical developments in South Asia

In its new Asia geo-strategy, the Obama Administration regards South Asia as a new and important extension of the two strategic links of Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia. This new important strategy reflects the new trend of America's intensifying and expanding its presence in Asia and reveals the deep strategic implications of the US to intensify and expand the "strategic besiege" against China. Its major strategic impacts are as follows:

l)It has given rise to greater competition and friction between China and India. The US has constantly enhancing its strategic cooperation with India and in particular helped India upgrade its military capacity in a bid to make India a major strategic force to check and beset China. The direct impact of this move is to enable India to take a tougher stance in its boundary negotiations with China and adopt a repulsive and confrontational attitude against the friendly cooperation between China and South Asian countries.

2) It has held back the strategic cooperation between Pakistan and China. By strengthening counter-terrorism cooperation with Pakistan, the US has in fact gained control over Pakistan's military and political affairs, thus putting limits of the deepening of China-Pakistan strategic cooperation.

3) It has weakened China's influence in South Asia. Recent years have seen the rapid growth of China's friendly relations and cooperation with South Asian countries and the consequential expansion of China's influence in the region. Through enhanced strategic cooperation with India and increased input in South Asia, the US has amplified its own influence and limited the expansion of China's influence in the region.

4) The continuous intensification of military cooperation between the US and India in the Indian Ocean has reinforced the US military presence in this strategic waters, greatly constrained the maritime transportation cooperation between China and South Asian countries in this area.

5) America's expanded and enhanced presence and role in the geopolitical structure of South Asia has a complex and profound strategic impact on the changing geopolitical developments in the region. To India, its growing strategic partnership with the US is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can boost India's national strengths and influence and constitute a strategic check against China. On the other hand, India's traditional geo-strategic pursuit of dominance in South Asia will surely lead to a new structural clash with America's South Asia geo-strategy. And the development and deepening of US-Pakistan strategic cooperation has effectively created a new strategic constraint on both the China-Pakistan strategic partnership and the US- India strategic partnership.

6) Generally speaking, multilateral relations in South Asia will become more complicated with obviously rising strategic competition which will greatly hinder multilateral and regional cooperation in this new context. The first to suffer is the trilateral cooperation among China, Russia and India, which is still in its infancy, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which has a close link with the geopolitics in South Asia. This is because the US would never accept the strategic check from such multilateral cooperation mechanisms from which it is excluded. Hence, an indispensable element of the US geopolitical strategy is to divide such grouping and resist the check therefrom.

(Translated by the author)

На Растку објављено: 2012-01-31
Датум последње измене: 2012-02-03 16:51:47

Пројекат Растко / Философија / Философија рата и мира