US strikes out on Asia-Pacific conquest

Neglecting Asia’s importance over the last decade may impair the US’ ability to regain its former power position.

The US is trying to exploit opportunities silently against China such as the Burmese Myitsone Dam project  [EPA]

Standing on a platform in Honolulu last week as United States military officials and heads of Pacific islands looked on, Hillary Clinton charted Washington’s course for re-entry to the Asia-Pacific. The hour-long talk, the content of which was first thrashed out in a seven-page article in Foreign Policy magazine last month, set the framework for Clinton’s visit to the region this week. There she will strike out on a path that, beset with difficulties, is crucial to the US’ continued status as the world’s sole superpower.  

The plan she lays out is ambitious and, for the sceptic, weighed down with a sense of foreboding familiarity: she speaks repeatedly of the need for the US to gain a foothold here, but said in the knowledge that her government’s myopic focus on the Middle East over the past decade has cleared the way for China to stretch its tentacles across the region. This China has done adeptly: its deployment of soft power, buoyed by the ability to find common ground with the nationalistic sentiment that dictates the policy of its neighbours, has won it favour with nations wary of the historically aggressive track record of the US here. As such Hillary et al face a difficult task in convincing wavering governments to ‘look West’ rather than be drawn further into Beijing’s strategic orbit.

The rhetoric of this blueprint for the coming decade is bold, but tinged with apprehension: the US needs to find new ground as wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, access to resources is secured, and all eyes turn to the cluster of countries rapidly reshaping the global economy. “In a time of scarce resources, there’s no question that we need to invest them wisely where they will yield the biggest returns, which is why the Asia-Pacific represents such a real 21st-century opportunity for us.”

Awkward references to human rights abound, but only one line, in which Hillary speaks of being “mindful of the bipartisan legacy” of her country’s history here, acknowledges the bloody footprint it has left in the region. Although hidden deep within a forest of political speak, it may well be the most significant statement she makes, for this selectivity is likely to characterise US’ reengagement with the region in the coming years.

Ominous signs already suggest that the US will saddle up to repressive regimes in order to realise its overarching priority for returning here, that of containing China and penetrating deeper the region’s markets. An early indication came last year with the announcement that Washington would rekindle relations with the maligned Indonesian military outfit, Kopassus, following suggestions that Jakarta may look to China for military support should the US refuse an alliance. The West Papua Advocacy Team didn’t share Robert Gates’ rosy assessment of Kopassus at the time as “reformed”: they met his announcement of renewed ties by labelling the outfit, whom the US had supplied with lists of communist sympathisers during the 1960s before breaking ties, “the most criminal and unreformed element of the Indonesian military”.

Since then, and amid frequent exchanges of snide criticism between Beijing and Washington, the US has manoeuvred to develop a network of allies in the region, massaging hostilities in the South China Sea to draw Vietnam away from Beijing’s grasp and, perhaps most worryingly, signalling that it is ready to break with years of isolationism to become a “partner” of Burma.

Its descriptions of the Burmese government over the past two months have been cloaked in an optimism not seen since Lyndon B Johnson enthusiastically backed the “policy of peace and nonalignment” of Burma’s first dictator, General Ne Win, in 1966. That came at a time when the CIA was arming the Chinese nationalist Kuomintang army who waged attacks on Mao’s forces from their bases in north-eastern Burma. As with now, the US was bent on restricting a hostile China from expanding south.

Today, the new US envoy, Derek Mitchell, is leading the charge, having made three trips to Burma in the space of seven weeks and rounding off the last one with a statement hailing the “rapid reform” of the nominally-civilian government, whilst opening up the possibility of military co-operation between the two countries. Further up in government, and the sentiment builds: Hillary spoke last week of the potential for the US to become a “partner” of Burma in light of the “first stirrings of change in decades”, although she added the requisite preconditions the government supposedly needs to meet before this happens, including the release of political prisoners.

History tells us however that the standards the US sets for its allies are wildly inconsistent and arbitrary. Much of the talk on Burma among White House officials is of “reform”, and less so that of “democracy”, allowing Naypyidaw some flexibility in the benchmarks it is required to meet. Washington’s relations with Cambodia, very much an autocratic state under the 13-year rule of Prime Minister Hun Sen, demonstrates the stunted length that “reform” in Burma will need to go before the US strides in. Additional evidence is given by US’ warming ties with a sceptical Vietnam, whose regime has been newly made acceptable by Washington’s PR hawks.

The US, China, and Asia

From its status as a pariah, Burma has risen over the past five years to that of a highly sought-after ally, hence the US interest. This evolution has largely been China’s work, but fuelled by competing US priorities for the region. Of the many economic interests Beijing has in Burma, its pièce de résistance is the dual pipeline project that will take Middle Eastern and African oil cargoes offloaded on Burma’s western coast up to Yunnan province, whilst giving China access to its neighbour’s vast offshore gas reserves. A key thrust for this project is Beijing’s anxiety about its eastern seaboard: the South China Sea dispute with Vietnam only adds to concerns that the Malacca Straits beneath Singapore, through which much of its oil shipments travel, can be closed off by patrolling US warships, exemplifying how a nervy China-US dynamic could play out over the coming decade.

China has poured billions of dollars into tapping Burma’s vast natural resources, as well as those of neighbouring Laos, and is busily damming the length of the Mekong river from its passage through Yunnan down to Cambodia. A similarly aspirational India is looking hungrily on, with Burma its only land passage to Southeast Asian economies, but cannot match Beijing’s huge foreign investment capital and seat on the UN Security Council. The US knows that securing Burma would, hypothetically speaking, bring an ally right to China’s doorstep at a time when its power is sweeping southwards across a region that Washington needs to penetrate.

But the timing of the recent upsurge in dialogue between US officials and their Burmese counterparts coincides with an unprecedented strain in relations between Beijing and Naypyidaw, triggered by President Thein Sein’s shock cancellation of a lucrative China-backed dam project in the country. The US then may be quietly attempting to exploit this fissure. Several analysts believe there to be unease in the top echelons of the Burmese government over its dependence on China, but whether this will prompt a turn towards the West anytime soon is doubtful: a leaked US diplomatic cable from 2004 quotes then Burmese Prime Minister Khin Nyunt telling the head of the rebel Karen National Union that allying with the US would allow Washington to “use Myanmar as a staging ground to penetrate China. That is the reason why America is exerting a lot of pressure on our nation. Hence, we do not have the slightest bit of trust in America”.

Despite talk of change in Burma, that unwavering nationalism remains the compass bearing for government policy, as evidenced by Thein Sein’s decision to risk a souring of relations with Beijing in order to stem the encroaching Chinese influence over the country. While the US may see this as an opening, what it really demonstrates is the mammoth task it faces in drawing into its arms a group of nations, including Burma, that place a premium on their own sovereignty, particularly when the other option is acceding to a rapacious West. China has curried favour here by achieving what the US and colonial Europeans did through centuries of aggression without firing a single bullet – that of attracting and eventually co-opting resource-rich, strategically well-placed nations to act both as a buffer against competing states, and a source of plunder for the soaring energy demands of its own population. Deep scars take time to heal, and the myriad countries in the region that have felt the pain of past US ventures here may justifiably continue to see China as a preferred friend.

The US then, who prefixed its arrival in Afghanistan with similar talk of “securing our interests, and advancing our values”, will need to navigate these waters with prudence. With its economy flagging and global reputation tarnished by a decade of war in the Middle East, Washington is steeling itself against the likelihood that soon its position as chief international ringmaster could be usurped. New ground therefore needs to be conquered, and a reinvigoration of its image abroad carefully spun.

“Our capacity to come back stronger is unmatched in modern history,” Hillary says. “It flows from our model of free democracy and free enterprise, a model that remains the most powerful source of prosperity and progress known to humankind.” Bar its strong relations with the likes of Thailand, Korea and Taiwan, the audiences Hillary will address in the coming days are unlikely to swallow this crusading rhetoric. Observers would also do well to read its newly-found praise for the region’s more despotic players with the knowledge that ulterior motives are at play: to pass measures that would allow the US to make a substantial return to the region, notably the dropping of various financial sanctions that block trade with the likes of Burma, Congress needs certain benchmarks to be met, many of which the White House has little time for. It may be that there is less to the progress in these “reforming” pariahs – which remain far from the norms of democratic governance the US paeans to – than has been noted by Hillary, who must sell a new conquest to the sceptics in her government with the knowledge that if she fails to do so, the US may not this time come back stronger.

Francis Wade is a journalist with the Democratic Voice of Burma, and has written this article from a personal capacity.

You can follow Francis Wade on Twitter @Francis_Wade

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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