A new era is dawning in the Pacific, where the United States is reasserting long unchallenged dominance in the face of China’s burgeoning power.
President Barack Obama deliberately made waves with his “Pacific pivot” speech in early November, vowing to shift the United States’s focus to Asia and staking out a leading role for the superpower that some assumed was in decline.
From leadership change in North Korea to undersea oil wealth in the disputed South China sea to jockeying for influence in Myanmar and announcing the powerfully symbolic basing of U.S. Marines in northern Australia, the rim of the western Pacific is emerging as a volatile arena for 21st-century jousting between big powers.
It may take decades to play out but Sino-American relations are under strain. The two countries may eventually become amicable rivals or – worse – increasingly hostile adversaries, but the not-so-peaceful Pacific will be centre stage.
“At no time since the end of the Cold War have U.S.-China relations been worse,” wrote Robert Ross, a political science professor at Boston College, in an essay this fall in The National Interest.
That was before Mr. Obama pointedly proclaimed: “The United States is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay.” That Pacific pivot speech to Australia’s Parliament, a day after announcing a deal to deploy U.S. Marines in northern Australia, was warmly welcomed by America’s allies.
It was just one in a series of interventions, announcements and high-profile visits that constitute “forward-deployed diplomacy,” to use Hillary Clinton’s phrase.
For more than two decades, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the first Gulf War, successive American presidents have been preoccupied with turmoil and conflict in Europe, the Middle East and – since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 – Afghanistan.
“As the war in Iraq winds down and America begins to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan, the United States stands at a pivot point,” Ms. Clinton said as the Obama administration unveiled its shift in focus.
“Asia-Pacific has become a key driver of global politics,” she said, and the U.S. priority will be “to lock in a substantially increased investment – diplomatic, economic, strategic and otherwise – in the Asia-Pacific region.”
Despite assurances – apparently not much believed in Beijing – that America’s new “Pacific-first” focus isn’t about containing China, a throwback to Cold War strategic thinking, the Obama administration has been frenetically active in the Pacific.
On trade, on arms sales, on stridently reaffirming superpower interests such as unfettered sea lanes, America’s first president to grow up in the Pacific has been increasingly assertive. Washington has sold sophisticated warplanes to Indonesia, pointedly backed Philippine claims to disputed South China Sea islands and slowed a long-planned drawdown of military forces on the Korean Peninsula. It has also accused China of cyber espionage and publicly championed Chinese dissidents.
The President has also wooed Asian nations and firmly backed long-standing allies – such as Japan and South Korea that fear China’s rise – by playing the democracy card.
“Other models have been tried and they have failed – fascism and communism, rule by one man and rule by committee,” the President said in his Pacific speech. “They failed for the same simple reason: They ignore the ultimate source of power and legitimacy – the will of the people.”
The message was clearly directed at China. The President has evidently decided that getting on the right side of history means opposing tyranny and authoritarianism in Asia, not just the Arab world. To drive home the point, he sent Ms. Clinton to Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, another Chinese client ruled by an aging clique of generals, where she dined with the long-imprisoned Aung San Suu Kyi.
While America’s allies in Asia welcomed Mr. Obama’s high-profile “pivot,” some analysts fear it may have raised unrealistic expectations.
“Many in Asia have been worrying about American decline. Obama projected American optimism, principles, determination and leadership,” wrote Kenneth Liberthal, a China expert and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, in the journal Foreign Policy. “But this new integrated Asia strategy risks overreach by creating expectations that Washington will not be able to meet [and]feeding suspicions in China that may lead to a far more irascible U.S.-China relationship.”