US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who penned an article in Foreign Policy magazine titled “America’s Pacific Century,” a few days before the announcement of the schedule for withdrawal from Iraq, openly declared this new American strategy. It is obvious that America, after a decade in Iraq and Afghanistan, has selected Asia as the focus of its new strategy. Even though it has been able to produce limited policies in relation to Iran (and its attempt to expand the sphere of the Shiite Crescent), Pakistan’s nuclear activities, relations with new partner India, and rising economic power China, the US -- which will withdraw from Iraq by the end of 2011 and from Afghanistan in 2014 -- will now try to become an influential power in the Asia-Pacific region.
In the article, which was published during Clinton’s trip to Libya, it states that the US has been in many parts of the world but failed to develop a coherent strategy in the Asia-Pacific. Clinton gave some hints on how they plan to make up for lost time and said that the US will introduce political, economic and new strategic moves for the region. What made the article even more important was that it announced a new roadmap for relations with China. The Obama administration’s new Asia strategy, heralded by a change of Asian chiefs at the White House and State Department, was made more concrete by this article. The most important strategy that Clinton focused on in the article was in relation to seeking cooperation with American allies in the Pacific in a bid to curb China’s expansion in the region. The first step to fulfill this strategy was an agreement for the deployment of 2,500 American troops in Australia. During a speech to the Australian parliament, Barack Obama made a clear reference to China when he said, “The United States is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay.”
On the other hand, the fact that Obama said in his speech that countries in the Asia-Pacific region have become global actors in recent times by virtue of their sizes, resources and economic growth rates is further proof of the emphasis being put on the region. Obama said these countries, which constitute at least half the nuclear powers in the world, will determine whether cooperation or conflict will be prevalent in the region or in the world. Obama drew attention to the trinity of Pakistan, India and China in the region and gave the message that nobody should have any doubts about the presence of the US in the 21st century Asia-Pacific.
That Clinton made an earlier visit to Asia accompanied by US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and that Panetta has since stressed that the US is an important Asia-Pacific power show that the US will implement cooperation initiatives in this region. As part of this assurance, the US seeks first to collaborate with Japan, South Korea and Australia to create Trans-Pacific cooperation and networks.
Obama’s Asia doctrine: China and Myanmar
It is worth considering three major factors that explain the importance of Asia from the perspective of the US. These are natural gas reserves, regional geopolitics and combating international terrorism. All these are supported in American politics by technological, naval and soft power as well as economic power. These three main factors shape the approach by the US in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. Policies that the US has been pursuing since the Obama replaced George W. Bush have been carefully considered in an attempt for the US to become a rising power through soft power assets in the region. In addition to this basic argument in the soft power discourse, the US has been taking cautious steps in respect to human rights and democratization in dealing with Asian countries on a macro level and also considering possible reactions from people in the region. The players and positions are changing in the Asia-Pacific region, where China has been rising in military and economic might.
RAND Corporation, known for its close affiliation with the Defense Department, published a report on China around the time Clinton’s article was published. This report underlines that China may leave regional and global powers behind in terms of gross national product and defense expenditure. To this end, a possible roadmap that the US may draft for different crises that could possibly break out in bilateral relations was evaluated in the report. According to the RAND report, possible areas of crisis between the US and China in years to come may include Taiwan, North Korea and possible conflicts and clashes in the realm of cyberspace. It is possible to note that the US has been pursuing a policy that allows its neighbors to become stronger vis-à-vis China rather than a policy of containment. It is obvious that in the policies to be drafted along this axis, the cooperation and economic struggle will be used in relations with neighboring countries. Regional priorities include the creation of a new trade zone by the US, where China will not be influential. The data referred to in the RAND report support all these arguments. In this way, there is a probable scenario that may appear in front of China by way of heavy economic sanctions by the US during times of crisis with any country. The title of such a strategic model discussed at various American think tanks is Mutually Assured Economic Destruction (MEAD).
There is another doctrine that in being pursued in this respect in the Pacific which accentuates the weakness of the US. Even though Obama is assertive arguing that the US is a Pacific power, the US has never really been influential in the region since Pearl Harbor. The source of this sensitivity has been around since this historic event; in the current setting of naval power policies, China is more of a threat than Japan for the US and South Korea. On the other hand, there is also the issue of possible relations between Myanmar and the US in the case of the success of reformist movements in this country, as referred to by Obama during his visit to Bali, Indonesia.
The question as to why the US is placing importance on a country like Myanmar deserves attention. Apparently one of the reasons for the growing importance of this country for the US is its geostrategic location. Myanmar is one of the countries that the US has kept a close watch on because of its record on human rights, its treatment of minorities and ongoing repression in that country. Clinton, the first state secretary to visit Myanmar in 50 years, said that it is the duty of the US to explore what could be done to support the development and improvement of political reforms, human rights and national reconciliation in this country. This statement confirms the above argument. Myanmar is ruled by a so-called civilian government that came to power in March and announced its intentions to liberalize the economic policies of the junta. The Myanmar government has eased censorship in the country by taking significant steps in this regard and introduced laws to legalize union activities. It also suspended a disputed dam project sponsored by China and has been working with pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Considering all of these points, it is possible to argue the changing course of events in the region hold great importance for the US and allow it to take revenge for the past in the Asia-Pacific. To this end, it could also be said that relevant policies have gained a second dimension through economic and naval power vis-à-vis the changing actors. For the US, which has the opportunity to face its past fears, another possible Pearl Harbor may mean permanent defeat in the Pacific region and another experience of the kind of shock associated with Sept. 11.
*Emrah Usta is a US political analyst and freelance observer based in Turkey. He can be followed on Twitter: @StrategcAnalyst