B S Raghavan

Jigsaw pieces of US's Asia policy

B.S.RAGHAVAN | Updated on November 15, 2017 Published on January 10, 2012

One can do no better than refer, at the very beginning, to the building blocks of the US policy on Asia as set out by the US Secretary of State, Ms Hillary Clinton, in the course of 2011 in her two landmark speeches at the East-West Centre, Honolulu (January) and at Chennai, India (July) and in her Op-Ed in the Foreign Policy magazine (October).

Although she uses Asia and Asia-Pacific as interchangeable terms in defining American goals in that part of the world, it is clear that, in the US perspective, it is Asia-Pacific, rather than Asia as a stand-alone entity, that counts as the basis for applying an overall policy prescription.

It is by no means a distinction without a difference. It implies, as Ms Clinton herself has underscored, a continuing as well as a compulsive obligation to look to the US interests across the Indian and Pacific oceans and weave them into a harmonious policy fabric.

Next, by the use of the double-barrelled expression, the US is subtly seeking to assert and extend its influence over a vast geographical expanse covered by the two oceans, encompassing close to 20 countries (Australia, Brunei, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar, New Zealand, the Pacific Islands, Pakistan, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam).

They are home to half the world's population, all set to become the driving force of the global economy, with shipping lanes busy transporting the bulk of world's merchant tonnage, offering fast expanding markets and insatiable and insatiate demand for an infinite volume and variety of goods and services, and with practically unlimited, and hitherto relatively unexploited, scope for trade, investment and exports.

TIGHT-ROPE WALKING

Strategically too, as Ms Clinton puts it, for the US, “maintaining peace and security across the Asia-Pacific is increasingly crucial to global progress, whether through defending freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, countering the proliferation efforts of North Korea, or ensuring transparency in the military activities of the region's key players.”

These and other formulations sprinkled across a number of official documents go to show that the US construes its Asia policy as a component, though a pivotal one, of “a broader effort to ensure a more comprehensive approach to American strategy and engagement in the region”, paving the way to entering into partnerships and alliances to that end.

This also requires the US necessarily to do some tight-rope walking in view of the bewildering political, economic and institutional diversities, complicated by divergent interests, characterising the countries of Asia-Pacific.

This means opting for the exercise of “soft power” with emphasis on persuasion and consensus, and being sensitive to the concerns of the different countries of the region. In this sense, the US Asia policy is a jigsaw whose pieces are yet to fall in place.

In regard to China, in particular, the US has forcefully affirmed that a thriving America is good for China just as much as a thriving China is good for America, and flatly rejected the thesis of American hardliners that China's progress is a threat to the US as seen from their standpoint and that the US, therefore, should pursue a countervailing policy of containment or, if unavoidable, confrontation.

“RETALIATORY ACTION”

On the other hand, a report under the title Sustaining US Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century prepared by the US Department of Defence (DoD) and released by President Barack Obama himself on January 5 by making a rare appearance at the Pentagon, takes a less optimistic position. It makes no bones about the US economy and security being affected over the long haul in a variety of ways by China's emergence as a regional power.

The report stridently demands that “the growth of China's military power must be accompanied by greater clarity of its strategic intentions in order to avoid causing friction in the region.”

An earlier DoD document had reserved for the US the right of “retaliatory action” with military force against China for the cyber-war it is supposed to have unleashed against the US, aimed at throwing its industry and infrastructure into chaos.

What form such retaliation can or will take is not clear, but the fact of mutually irreconcilable postures of the Departments of State and Defence is sufficient evidence of the prevailing ambivalence in the US Administration with respect to China.

Published on January 10, 2012
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