Once again, the re-elected US President, Barack Obama, chose Asia for his first foreign visit after the Presidential elections. And this time, he visited states which were nowhere on Obama’s agenda the last time he had toured the region. But four years is a long time and much has changed. If last time, Obama wanted to reach out to the Chinese in an attempt to jointly manage the Asian region, there is no such fuzzy thinking this time around. If last time, the military junta in Myanmar was in the doghouse, this time around Washington was recognising the gradual steps towards the reforms the generals in Yangon have taken over the last few months.
Obama was in Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia last week, becoming the first sitting US president to visit Myanmar and Cambodia. Though both nations have dismal human rights records, Obama used his trip to underline their gradual move towards democratic reforms and warned that its progress should not be impeded.
Obama met with Myanmar President Thein Sein and even used the name Myanmar, instead of Burma, as a courtesy to the host. But the highlight of his visit was his meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi, something unimaginable just a few months back.
Cambodia remains a close ally of the US and by visiting the country Obama was signalling that the US has no intention of letting Cambodia go to the other camp without a fight.
And after the visit of the US president, Bangkok was welcoming the Chinese President, Hu Jintao, last week. Thailand, as a major non-NATO ally of the US, is trying very hard to maintain a balance between Washington and Beijing but its interest in joining the US-driven Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks might upset China, which so far isn’t part of the discussions and has pushed for expanded trade ties in East Asia instead.
The China factor is all around and the Obama Administration is now trying to get its act together in Asia after making a number of false starts. When Obama visited China in November 2009, he was at the height of his power domestically. He was dictating the contours of his domestic political agenda. The opposition was weak and diffuse. His administration had ideas about China as the fulcrum of stability in the Asia-Pacific.
China’s growing economic and political clout was forcing the Obama administration in early days to toy with the idea of a G-2, a global condominium of the US and China, whereby China could be expected to look after and ‘manage’ the Asia-Pacific. The Obama administration, however, was signaling that it was more interested in managing America’s decline than in preserving its pre-eminence in the global order. There was no strategic vision about Asia apart from the hope that US and China could work together to sort out global problems.
Today it is a much different scenario, one where China has started asserting itself more strongly than before, and Obama’s latest visit to Asia was aimed at reminding China that the US still retains its role as the principle balancing force in the region.
Regional states are worried about China’s rise and its attempts in the recent past to assert its interests more forcefully in the region. There is a clamor for American leadership in the region, as none of the regional states want China to emerge as the dominant actor in the region. All want a stronger US presence in the region to confer greater stability.
America’s new diplomatic and military strategy is explicitly geared towards tackling the emerging threat from China’s massive and rapid military build-up and growing diplomatic clout. It takes forward the already underway process of reorienting the American military might from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Where the new strategy is unambiguous, however, is in underlining the challenge in the Asia-Pacific and turning America’s gaze to this geostrategically pivotal region and to China’s growing prowess. The U.S. is re-ordering its strategic priorities. As the US secretary of state has already underlined, “the future of politics will be decided in Asia, not Afghanistan or Iraq, and the United States will be right at the center of the action.”
At a time when talk of American decline and retrenchment from global commitments has become de rigueur, the signals coming from Washington are that it has no intention of leaving the Asian strategic landscape. Nor will regional states allow America to lower its profile. After all, the elephant in the room (region) is China’s faster-than-expected ascent in the global inter-state hierarchy.
The writer teaches at King’s College, London, and is the author of The China Syndrome