To defend its primacy in the region, the US should look more to using soft-power strategies. It should not be reduced to simply containing China’s rise and military power.
Michael Vatikiotis for The Straits Times
Published: Feb 25, 2021
A month after assuming power, the Biden administration has signalled the most important geographical shift in US foreign policy since the 1970s.
Back in 1975, the United States retreated from Asia after its humiliating military defeat in Vietnam. The next four decades were spent trying to bring peace to the Middle East, and then, pouring trillions of dollars and thousands of lives into a largely fruitless effort to subdue violent religious and nationalist responses to their failed peace efforts.
Over the past decade, the Obama and Trump administrations moved to give up on the Middle East and turn the policy gaze back on Asia, with varying degrees of success and failure.
President Joe Biden has finally managed to break the mould this year by making sure his administration’s foreign policy is preponderantly geared towards Asia, using the challenge of China’s great power rise as the driving logic.
The new Indo-Pacific Directorate, headed by foreign policy heavyweight Kurt Campbell, will be the largest regional directorate in the National Security Council, which traditionally leads policy-making.
In geopolitical terms, this seismic shift offers both challenges and opportunities for global peace. If Washington adopts a conventional hard-power approach, combining coercive military and diplomatic measures, Asia could become the new locus of global conflict.
Hard on China
Initial signs are that the hard-power approach is in vogue.
Mr Biden didn’t skip a beat in the increasing tempo of American concern about China’s rise and the threat to US primacy that gathered pace under his controversial predecessor Donald Trump.
“If we don’t get moving, they are going to eat our lunch,” President Biden told US senators, talking about the need to combat China’s growing edge in technology and infrastructure development globally.
He moved fast to appoint a heavyweight task force at the Pentagon to “chart a strong path forward on China matters”.
New US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin told a Senate confirmation hearing that while he was focused on the Middle East as a commanding army-general, “Asia must be the focus of our effort and I see China in particular as a pacing challenge for the department”.
The tack towards confronting China clearly has bipartisan support. Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who sits on the powerful Armed Services and Intelligence Committee, recently called for “the Chinese Communists” to be consigned “to the ash heap of history”.
All this is why military analysts consider that the most proximate threat to war is in the disputed maritime regions of the East China Sea, Taiwan Strait and South China Sea, where resistance to China’s claims of sovereignty by littoral states including Japan and the larger economies of South-east Asia has been lent significant support by more frequent and concentrated US military deployment.
By the middle of this month, not one but two US carrier battle groups were conducting exercises in the South China Sea.
US foreign policy under Mr Biden looks likely to exert pressure on countries in the region to adhere to a starkly unilateral policy of blocking and containing China. There is a growing chorus of support for defining a “Quad” of military cooperation that includes India, Australia and Japan in a more assertive posture against China. This approach will have much the same stressful impact on stability and security that the equally strenuous pro-Israeli and Saudi policies had in the Middle East.
The US foreign policy manual is geared towards alignment and alliance, a mantra derived from the post-isolationist experiences after World War Two and the containment of the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Much of Asia managed to achieve a degree of non-alignment in the decades after the Vietnam War ended and the Cold War era passed. Even as China gained power and influence, there was a regional consensus on accommodating, but not confronting China. Simply, countries in the region don’t want to have to choose one great power over another.
A recent survey by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute found that while a growing number of people in the region favour the US over China, only 4 per cent would agree to choosing sides.
Nor will reviving effective US influence in the region be that simple. Back in the 1960s, it was a question of diplomatic strong-arming using covert as well as overt aid and material: A US ambassador could determine the outcome of a change of government, and support or block a bid for power. More than half a century after the fall of Indonesia’s founding President Sukarno, there is still debate about the role the US played in fuelling a rampage of military-directed anti-communist violence that killed as many as half a million people.
Limits of U.S. power
The recent military coup in Myanmar highlights the contemporary limits of American power. Mr Biden’s imposition of sanctions amounted to little more than a pinprick – targeting military leaders and a billion dollars held in US accounts.
The Myanmar Army relies on revenue from exports of illicit narcotics and jade worth billions and managed by transnational crime rings that have proven largely immune to sanctions or legal action.
A more sensible approach to crisis management in Myanmar would take as a starting point the potential influence of regional states which have trusted ties with the Myanmar military leadership – notably Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam. The advantage of an indirect approach is that the US, as well as like-minded friends and allies, could direct advice and messages through trusted channels and be assured of a hearing and having some impact.
Current geopolitical tension between the US and China, which borders Myanmar and considers the country as part of its sphere of influence, makes direct intervention sensitive and prone to misperception.
Finally, to encourage and quietly support regional states to engage and become more active in protecting global norms is of clear advantage to the US.
Meanwhile, the US could help build broader support in the region using soft-power strategies: for example, by reviving policies that Asians appreciated, such as taking in refugees for resettlement and by welcoming foreign students again.
Defending US primacy should not be reduced to simply containing China’s rise and military power.
Ironically, the swerve to Asia – with all the attendant risks – may serve the Middle East well by opening space for more nuanced and objective peacemaking.
For without Washington’s heavy military footprint and slavish adhesion to the interests of Israel and Saudi Arabia, it might just be possible to chart a more successful path to stabilising a region that currently contributes more than 40 per cent of the world’s refugee community.
- Michael Vatikiotis is the Asia director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue and author of Blood And Silk: Power And Conflict In Modern Southeast Asia.