Archive for November 2011
During the Cuban Missile Crisis in the heat of the Cold War, U.S. President John F. Kennedy was reportedly convinced that an air strike and invasion to remove Soviet missiles from Cuba would be “one hell of a gamble.” Though the circumstances are notably different, that about sums up the level of risk U.S. President Barack Obama and others are now taking on Burma.
After being scorned for decades as one of the world’s most repressive regimes, Burma’s new nominally civilian government is now being coaxed back into the international fold at a dizzying pace. At its annual meeting in Bali earlier this month, The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) awarded Burma the much−coveted diplomatic prize of chairing the grouping in 2014. This week, Mr. Obama’s secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, will make the first official U.S. visit to the heavily−sanctioned nation in over 50 years. Everyone from UN Secretary General Ban Ki−moon to EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton has offered glowing praise for the Burmese government, and even the opposition National League for Democracy, led by renowned opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, has re−registered to contest an upcoming by−election after boycotting polls just last year.
There is certainly some cause for all this back−patting. Since civilian President Thien Sien met with Ms. Suu Kyi in August, Burma has witnessed a cascade of reforms that have confounded even the most ardent skeptics. The government has, among other things, halted the construction of the China−backed dam due to public concerns, ended restrictions on the Internet, peaceful protest and free trade unions, loosened press freedom and released hundreds of political prisoners (though many more remain behind bars). Given these “flickers of progress,” Mr. Obama says he wants to “seize what could be a history opportunity” for Burma to possibly “forge a new relationship” with the United States.
Yet it remains unclear whether making such overtures right now will stimulate more reform or stifle it. After sanctioning and isolating a brutal hermetic regime for decades, encouraging a government that has shown an initial willingness to open up does make sense. There is also some reason to believe that Mr. Thien Sien’s government will continue down the path of change, particularly since it badly needs foreign investment from abroad to develop a battered economy and calm a restive populace at home.
But reform drives in Burma have been scuttled by hardliners before, and a similar outcome could result this time. The country also has a long walk down the road to meaningful change. The UN General Assembly offered a reminder of this when it passed a resolution last week condemning Burma in spite of recent reforms, citing “systematic violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms” ranging from arbitrary detention to rape and torture. Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R.−Ind.) released a statement ahead of Mrs. Clinton’s Burma trip stating that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was aware of Burma’s intent to develop nuclear weapons with the help of North Korea as early as 2006. Given this, critics say the international community should be cautious, waiting for more concessions, withholding major trump cards and sitting tight until promises are translated into reality.
Mr. Obama has instead opted for a riskier approach, responding to startling but piecemeal changes with a high−profile visit. This is despite the fears of many that the administration could be duped and look naïve ahead of presidential elections next year if reforms ebb or even reverse. But as the fearless Ms. Suu Kyi once said, “The only real prison is fear, and the only real freedom is freedom from fear.” Mr. Obama and the international community have shown no shortage of courage gambling on Burma. Let’s hope it pays off.
This article was originally published in the Tufts Daily here.
When Hawaii−born U.S. President Barack Obama famously declared himself America’s first “Pacific President” in a speech in Tokyo two years ago, the audience was charmed by his references to green−tea ice cream, childhood visits to Japan and boyhood years in Indonesia.
They were probably less impressed by America’s Asia policy during his first year in office. Mr. Obama showed up to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) with virtually no trade policy, acquiesced to Beijing unnecessarily on several issues and had a rocky start with U.S. allies and friends like Japan, India and Taiwan. Weeks before America’s new president was about to leave for his first official Asia trip, Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s patriarch and one of Asia’s leading strategic thinkers, warned that the United States risked losing global leadership if it did not remain engaged in Asia to balance a rising China.
Since then, Mr. Obama has tried to make amends by buttressing ties with countries generally aligned with the United States instead of trying to change the interests of those who are not. He has backed Southeast Asian countries against Chinese bullying in the South China Sea, enhanced America’s checkered commitment to regional multilateral forums and deepened relations with allies and strategic partners like Indonesia, South Korea and Vietnam. Meanwhile, flickers of hope have appeared in U.S. engagement efforts with North Korea and Myanmar. In recent months, his administration has indicated that despite defense cuts and economic challenges at home, the United States remains committed to lead in the Asia−Pacific.
Mr. Obama made more waves in his latest voyage across the Pacific. Hosting the APEC summit in Hawaii, he pushed his regional trade agreement, the Trans−Pacific Partnership, which advances a platinum Free Trade Agreement standard that addresses critical commercial rules and regulations. In Australia, he secured greater U.S. access to Australian bases, providing a staging point for the American military in the Indian Ocean and a sanctuary beyond the striking range of China’s growing arsenal of long−range missiles.
Equally important was what Mr. Obama did not do. He did not fan Chinese fears of containment and Southeast Asian fears of superpower rivalry by suggesting that these overtures were aimed at Beijing. In fact, he went out of his way to say directly that “the notion that we’re looking to exclude China is mistaken,” and that Beijing was an important part of setting principles for all actors to follow in the region, even if it would have to realign its policies to pursue future common goals. That struck a good balance between advancing a U.S. vision in Asia and leaving room for conditional Chinese involvement. Chinese officials, of course, still questioned whether American initiatives were “appropriate,” forgetting the fact that it was Beijing’s own missteps that had opened the door to a stronger U.S. presence in the region.
He also did not attempt to dominate the agenda at America’s first East Asian Summit (EAS) as some countries had feared. Instead, he backed other Asian nations’ insistence on a multilateral resolution of conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea after they had all spoken at a smaller EAS session on Saturday. Though Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was put on the defensive, he addressed the concerns in a constructive way that was a far cry from Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi’s notorious tantrum at the ASEAN Regional Forum in 2010. That was a relief to Asian countries, who wanted to make their worries heard without incurring Beijing’s wrath.
Mr. Obama still has a year in office before presidential elections next year, during which much can happen. But as he returns from his weeklong swing around the Pacific Rim, he certainly looks more the part of a Pacific President than he did two years ago.
This article was originally published in the Tufts Daily.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
After his first year in office, US President Barack Obama was criticized for neglecting Asia and coddling China. He showed up to APEC with virtually no trade policy, acquiesced to Beijing unnecessarily on several issues, and had a rocky start with US allies and friends like Japan, India and Taiwan. Lee Kuan Yew, one of Asia’s top strategic thinkers, caused a stir when he warned several policy wonks in his 2009 visit that the vacuum of US policy was giving China a free run in the region.
Since then, Mr. Obama has tried to make amends. He has helped Southeast Asian countries stand up to Chinese bullying in the South China Sea, enhanced America’s commitment to regional multilateral forums, and deepened relations with allies and strategic partners such as Indonesia and Vietnam. He has made more waves in his latest voyage across the Pacific, advancing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and announcing new US troop deployments in Australia.
And yet the naysayers still aren’t happy. Media hype and Chinese hysteria aside, a host of academics and commentators in the United States and Asia have argued that Mr. Obama’s bold assertion of US interests in the Asia-Pacific alienates a rising China and forces Asian nations to take sides, thereby slowly stirring up the perfect storm that is the next Cold War.
As a student of Cold War history and international relations, it is hard not to fret about China’s rapid military buildup and growing uncertainties about American power. The path to war is arguably paved not only with differing national interests or ideals, but misperceptions, miscalculations and mistrust. And the world is one-for-three in terms of successfully integrating rising powers into the international system without war in the 20th century: successful in the case of the United States, not so in the cases of Germany and Japan.
And yet the perfect storm forecast by some seems like little more than a storm in a teacup. Mr. Obama is advancing US interests in a strategically important region in ways that are good for the United States and good for the region. A strong troop presence is not just about projecting American power; it allows Washington to help protect sea lanes and assist in humanitarian operations as well as contain Chinese aggression in areas like the South China Sea. Similarly, the TPP not only helps the American economy, but at best advances a platinum FTA standard that addresses critical commercial rules and regulations (such as IP, environment and labor provisions), and at least gives Asian nations a choice between this model and a shallower, China-led one. US foreign policy ought to be based on what is best for the United States and its friends and allies, not what China considers “appropriate”. Beijing must understand that and cannot expect otherwise.
Moreover, perhaps himself aware of Chinese fears, Mr. Obama has gone out of his way to insist that US engagement in the Asia-Pacific is not an attempt to encircle or isolate China. In Australia, he said directly that “the notion that we’re looking to exclude China is mistaken”. He went on to state that Beijing was an important part of setting principles for all actors to follow in the region, that its involvement would be good for the United States, but that Beijing would have to realign its policies just like all other countries in order to pursue common goals in the future.
That doesn’t sound quite like beating the drums of war. It strikes a good balance between advancing a US vision in Asia with countries whose ideals and interests are aligned with America’s, and leaving room for potential Chinese involvement. And it recognizes the fact that since most countries in the region do not want to be forced to pick between Washington and Beijing, advancing an exclusivist agenda in Asia in a domineering way might not be the best idea. Instead, a more prudent approach would be one that focuses on enhancing mutual cooperation with like-minded countries as partners rather than just pawns in a geopolitical chess game.
In terms of actions too Mr. Obama can hardly be seen as having been eager to anger or alienate Beijing. Instead, his administration has moved from initially bending over backwards to reassure Beijing to a more balanced China policy, not because of a sudden desire to contain China, but due to a need to reassure US allies and friends after several displays of Chinese aggression. And even so, despite the rise in tough talk of late, the American president still appears reluctant to anger China on substantive issues like Taiwan, which explains his decision to exclude new F-16s from arms sales to Taiwan in September. The general tone of cooperation has also persisted into 2011, with China itself declaring the meeting between President Hu Jintao and Mr. Obama a huge success with efforts made at building a Sino-American partnership of mutual benefit and mutual respect. Barack Obama is clearly not a president who has ruled out cooperation in favor of conflict thus far, and nor does he seem to want to do so in the future.
This is despite increasingly worrying signals from Beijing about its murky intentions and opaque military capabilities. While details remain undefined, it is clear that China is developing a blue-water navy supported by a wide range of missiles, radars, sensors and torpedoes, including a ballistic missile that could deter US aircraft carrier strike groups critical to defending Washington’s allies. Such a force, as Mr. Lee noted, cannot just be for defensive purposes alone.
Even if one challenges forecasts about Beijing’s capabilities, its intentions have not manifested in reassuring ways either, whether one looks at Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, its rare earth rumble with Japan, or the continuing missile buildup across from Taiwan. Even more troubling, Chinese officials are more interested in pointing out the fact that “China is a big country and other countries are small countries”, rather than appreciating the dynamics of this asymmetry. Smaller countries tend to feel more vulnerable vis-a-vis their larger neighbors, and if they are not adequately assured, they will turn to other larger powers (such as the United States) for help. Indeed, the irony of Asia policy in the Obama administration is that its initial naivete about unrealistic cooperation with China gave way to a more prudent and thoughtful approach toward Asia because of Chinese belligerence and its effects on Beijing’s neighbors.
To the extent that a Cold-War style confrontation between the US and China is likely, avoiding it is a two-way street. The origins of the Cold War arguably lay not only in the structure of the international system and the circumstances of the time, but the perceptions and ideals of US and Soviet policymakers who acted within this context. Conflict was not predetermined.
To avert such a scenario, leaders in Washington and Beijing must continue to pursue cooperation on the multitude of issues on which they agree, assess their own and each other’s capabilities, interests, intentions and actions in a prudent way, and engage in dialogue whenever possible to narrow differences and minimize tensions. Both countries need to balance pursuing their own interests and ideals in Asia while being conscious of how their intentions and actions are perceived by the other, thereby reducing the room for misperception and miscalculation. To his credit, Mr. Obama has done fairly well in this regard. Whether his successors and counterparts in Beijing can do the same remains to be seen.