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Challenges from Asia

Asia poses a number of major challenges to US foreign policy, but neither the White House nor the Congress is capable of addressing these challenges.

Letter from America

Challenges from Asia

Asia poses a number of major challenges to US foreign policy, but neither the White House nor the Congress is capable of addressing

these challenges.


t first glance, 2007 seems to be shaping up as a return to oldfashioned geopolitics everywhere except in the Americas. The Democrats who will take over key foreign policy committees in the new year, however, may not be well suited to grapple with the challenges this will pose. The first hint of this came when Silvestre Reyes, an unexpected choice for incoming chairman of the House International Relations Committee, was stumped by a reporter’s question about the difference between shias and sunnis, and Al Qaida’s relationship to these two sects. In the Senate, Joe Biden exemplifies the likely tendency of Congressional Democrats to use their new power to keep harping on failures in Iraq as a legislative complement to preparing the ground for a Democrat to enter the White House in 2009. The more the new Congress focuses on Iraq, the less likely the US government will be able come to terms with profound developments taking place across the world, especially in Asia.

Latin America has been missing from Washington’s gaze for some time. In the likely absence of greater engagement in its backyard, all that the US can look forward to is a possible leadership transition in Cuba, but without the radical political change that aging counterrevolutionaries in Miami have been hoping for, and a drop in oil prices which will reduce Hugo Chavez’s ability to buy public attention, affection, and dislike in everincreasing amounts. The rest of the continent has been moving leftward for some time, politically, and opening up to the rest of the world, economically. Both tendencies are in direct opposition to the US’ desires, but there seems to be little it can do to prevent this. The political discussion in Washington will continue to centre on two issues, drugs and immigration, and will also continue to deny that both are driven primarily by demand within this country.

In sharp contrast to the Americas, one of the biggest trends of the last year was the return of Russia to old European patterns of foreign policy behaviour. Stripped of its empire a decade ago, the KGB-led, primary products-exporting New Russia is making efforts to win back at least some of its former satraps, and punishing those who stray too far. With NATO and the European Union pressing ever closer to its borders, Russia has returned to “Macht-politik” using its huge oil and gas supplies as its preferred weapons. Belarus, Ukraine and Georgia have all felt its fist recently, while the central Asian republics never really tried very hard to free themselves of the Kremlin’s grasp. As their populations make noises about copying the colourful democratic transitions in central Europe, the “ ’stans” will only come closer to Moscow. With pragmatics rather than ideology now governing its behaviour, Russia has used its permanent seat in the UN Security Council to protect its economic interests and offer itself as a necessary check of an out-of-control US.

Crisis in Asia

Is there a bigger crisis for US foreign policy than recent developments in Asia? The continent is now home to four declared nuclear powers (China, India, Pakistan and North Korea), one undeclared nuclear weapon state (Israel), one that is being steadily pushed in that direction (Iran), one that could easily become one tomorrow (Japan), a development which will force South Korea to do the same, and give good reason for Taiwan to consider resurrecting its covert programme again. There are those in the Saudi and Egyptian governments who are just waiting for an excuse to do the same, transforming this region into the best experiment yet of Kenneth Waltz’s optimistic scenario that a greater number of nuclear powers in the world implies greater stability as they will all deter each other. Such hairtrigger stability will come at the price of the US’ ability to influence any of these countries – the majority of whom are its formal allies – in any substantial way; under such a scenario, the US too will be deterred.

The delight of “schadenfreude” at the US’ relative weakness in Asia is no substitute for recognising the manifest dangers that these developments augur for this region. The recent Chinese white paper on national defence planning recognises the renewed US-Japanese alliance and collaboration in missile defence, outwardlooking Japanese military policies, a nuclear North Korea and, of course, a stillindependent Taiwan as its primary concerns, justifying its massive investments in next generation weapons systems and forces. Although China’s main concerns are its immediate neighbourhood, nowhere better exemplified than its atavistic obsession with the lost property of Taiwan, its foreign policy has unmistakably taken on a global cast in the recent past. Its considerable investments in sub-Saharan Africa, central Asia and Latin America, and its lack of concern with any normative or humanitarian principles, have made it the “Other US”: a global power which has learned Kissinger’s lessons of realpolitik so well that it will deal with anyone, anywhere, as long as it furthers a utilitarian definition of the national interest.

Washington’s hope that its new relationship with India and strengthened ties with Japan might help to avert or balance the rise of Chinese power puts too much weight on its own calculus of benefit without considering carefully enough the view from Tokyo and New Delhi. Neither Japan nor India wants to or can afford to oppose China directly: rather, their bilateral relationships with the US are also measured by the degree to which they can encourage the US to constrain China, while they continue to engage positively with it across a variety of arenas. With a need not to lose any further ground in Asia than they already have, the US’ freedom of action in this turbulent region is increasingly limited. This would be the moment for a serious consideration of its global foreign policy, if ever there was one. However, the vacuum of thought in the White House and the absence of leadership in the Congress make that eventuality quite unlikely in 2007.



Economic and Political Weekly January 13, 2007

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