Tuesday, 22 November 2011

The Giant in the Room

 Agio Pereira

A frequently debated question today is whether the United States is an indispensable ally or a benign empire. A simple and true answer is both. The U.S. is needed to influence states to, at least most of the time, focus their resources on building the best human nature can produce. Equally, and in doing so, the U.S. cannot not avoid acting as a benign empire because the global security constraints today, including the failing influence of the European Union, dictates the need to act as a benign empire. This is the reason why the announcement of President Obama in Canberra, Australia, that the U.S. is to station marines in Darwin, the outback of Australia, provoked a strong negative reaction from China. Such a reaction is in accordance with the expectations, even though Australia has been the strongest ally of the U.S., a fact   Obama also acknowledged.

The real problem, however, is the ‘security dilemma’ inherent in international relations, particularly acute amongst the middle and great powers. Whenever one state makes a move to enhance its military capability, it provokes negative reaction in another state out of fear. Increased military capability means increased threat and the potential endangering of the survival of states. This is because states possess military and economic power and do, sometimes, go to war. Therefore, one state’s move to ensure its own survival through military means inevitably causes another to also increase its own. In this particular case, the move of the U.S. to increase its military presence in Australia’s northern region inevitably instigates within the Chinese elite the belief that China has to further increase its own military capability to ensure its survival. The U.S. move to assert military presence in the northern region of Australia, with 2,500 marines and the expected joint air force exercises, already reflects, and is a response to, the increasing military power and assertiveness projected by China.  Inevitably both powers will continue to increase their respective power until such time as a war may become a real probability.

This new Cold War is heating up. Two questions remain. First, when this increased heat reaches boiling point? As some experts argue, the security dilemma predicts that this dynamic becomes unstoppable. It can, however, be delayed and war avoided, provided that effective communication between leaders can be sustained. The second question is what will occur when the boiling point is reached? Departing from this paradigm, all the official talks allowed to reach the public realms becomes vested with the value of mitigating this security reality – the danger of war.

So what are the leaders of these too giant nations telling us? As reported in The New York Times, 16 November 16 2011, it is China’s view that it is the U.S. seeking ‘to use military power to influence events in Asia’. China’s position is that the U.S. should instead focus on using soft-power. This also demonstrates the strategy of China to blame the U.S. for any new move the Chinese government may take to increase its military offensive capacity.

Speaking to the Australian Parliament last Thursday, President Obama explained that this American move to build U.S. military presence is a deliberate and strategic decision to enable the United States to play a more effective role, with a long-term perspective, ‘in shaping’ the Asia-Pacific region. Therefore, China is right to read this development as an intention by the U.S. to influence events in the region. And military presence is, of course, a key way of enabling the U.S. to play a more effective role. To further understand the purpose of the U.S. strategic move a White House off-the-camera briefing on November 9, by Ben Rhode, the Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications, explained that the ultimate goal of the U.S. is to become more proactive economically and militarily in the Asia-Pacific region. Following from this he stated that there was a need ‘to restore our alliances in this part of the world, to raise U.S. standing in this part of the world, and, again, to make sure that the U.S. remains the preeminent economic and security power in the Asia Pacific and more broadly’.

But ‘shaping the region in what ways?’ is what China may rightly ask because for China it is in its equally decisive strategic regional interest to build its military and economic strength to, at least, become a regional hegemony for the sake of its own survival.  This position is now being threatened. In addition, China understands that the U.S. is not only moving to expand military alliances but also to strengthen important alliances with economic power. The latter determines the former because without economic power, military power cannot be sustained, as the demise of the Soviet Union testifies. President Obama personally leads this challenge the U.S. faces in the post Cold War, post-Soviet Union era, implementing what his Democrat predecessor, Bill Clinton, started in 1993. The new security emphasis is, however, to expand with the strategic aim of containment, against China, because the new global security challenge is not in Europe but is now right in the Asia-Pacific region, and particularly within the sphere that China intends to consolidate its influence.

China has been pro-actively pursuing its influence in the region and beyond, offering economic and technical support to many countries. So far such a support is offered with apparently benign intention, towards the noble goals of development and mutual respect, coupled with its strategic national interest which is to ensure sustained sources of energy supply for its own industries. For any state, this is a perfectly legitimate survival strategy. China proclaims the aim of enhancing the spirit of mutual cooperation with focus on building a harmonious neighborhood, as Wang Yusheng reported from Beijing days ago. This should not threaten the national interests of the U.S. because these are shared goals. Nevertheless, the U.S. frame these goals differently, in its own narrative of spreading democratic values, something China can interpret as a threat. For the U.S. it is the Chinese growing emphasis on military development, a direct result of its economic success that poses serious concerns. Fear, thus play a vital role.

Furthermore, the economic growth syndrome dictates that the more powerful a national economy becomes, the more sophisticated a national security strategic capacity ought to be developed. The main effect is protection of national interests. This is the reason why the U.S. finally decided to move to the northern region of Australia. As President Obama says, this deployment of U.S. troops is a response to ‘the wishes of democratic allies in the region, from Japan to India, countries that have been worried whether the U.S. is ceding its leadership role to China’, as a result of ‘war-fatigue’, to borrow the expression of the New York Times. This is certainly one core factor. The other is the survival of Australia itself, which can be equated with effective containment of the offensive military power of China.

How can 2,500 U.S. troops stationed in Darwin limit Chinese regional superpower ambitions? One way to answer this question is to look at what Hillary Clinton wrote in the ‘America’s Pacific Century’ article published by Foreign Policy of November 2011. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton makes it clear: to sustain our leadership, secure our interests, and advance our values…one of the most important tasks of American statecraft over the next decade will therefore be to lock in a substantially increased investment – diplomatic, economic, strategic, and otherwise – in the Asia-Pacific region. To sustain the U.S. leadership becomes an issue because the world is now dependent upon the U.S. as the only superpower able to enhance global security and to protect core democratic values. This task should not be too complex because there is no power in the world to match the U.S. today. With the European Union experiment facing unparalleled crises, the demand for the U.S. to continue to play a more pro-active roll is increasing.

But what is the Asia-Pacific region Hillary Clinton is referring to? The Asia-Pacific region includes much of East Asia, Southeast Asia, Australia and Oceania, major Asian countries and those around the Pacific Rim. The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), on the other hand, includes Canada, Chile, Russia, México, Peru, and the United States; and the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), includes Turkey, Central and South Asia, Southeast and Northeast Asia, extending to the Pacific Islands in the east. Often critics question whether this vast region can be considered a true community of interest, or whether it is rather a political construct established to extend Western influence. This critique appears to reflect upon the inevitable predominance of the U.S. and the not so often made clear focus on community and common interests. Adding the imbalances of the free trade system where the powerful dictate the priorities and the weak states lacking know-how to compete, the perception that the region is a construct under the guise of expanding Western influence cannot be easily refuted. In addition, the consequence of the belligerence between China and the U.S. becomes an important factor affecting regional security and it is precisely this belligerence that brings about the increased military presence of the U.S. and which will impact on liberal democracies in the region. The giant is now in the room. Therefore, it will impact on policy emphases and international relations and attitudes, regardless of domestic priorities of the states.  

The security dilemma, one of the determining factors of wars between sovereign states, is constantly mitigated by diplomacy and security arrangements. However, the problem of powerful leaders not knowing what is going on in the minds of their counterparts can never be overcome. Hu Jintao may be wondering what is going on in Obama’s mind and vice-versa. Both may even read and consider, to some satisfactory extent, what really is going on in their respective minds, but the perennial problem is that nothing can ensure that each of them may not change their minds. Uncertainty enhances insecurity, making arms races a justifiable and even rational move.

In 1993, hosting the first APEC Economic Leader’s Meeting, President Bill Clinton stated that the U.S. leadership around the globe is to ultimately foster the preservation of peace. After eighteen years and as the globe now faces diverse security challenges, this goal becomes even more important. After the end of the Cold War with the demise of the Soviet Union, the U.S. is now the sole global superpower and it can do a lot of good for the security of the world. Some, however, rightly worry because sometimes the U.S. can also do wrong. After ten years, many now ask what the world would look like if Al Gore was to be declared, by the U.S. Supreme Court, as the President-Elect. This is a reasonable question because leaders of powerful nations can determine the future of the globe. Hypothetic reasoning follows that the ongoing Arab Spring phenomenon would probably take care of Suddan Hussein, as it did with Gaddafi and others. Moreover, thousands of American and non-American lives would have been saved.

When Australia decided to increase its firing power, as outlined in its Defence White Paper, regional commentators argued that Australia is, in fact, preparing to survive the Third World War. Darwin was severely punished during WWII. The probability of suffering similar punishment in WWIII may either now be minimised by the U.S. effective presence in this strategic region, or enhanced due to precisely the same reason. This regional security paradigm brings into question what Samuel Huntington argues; that the world is condemned to face a clash of civilizations. Whether the move of the U.S. to occupy more strategic positions in the Asia-Pacific region is to enhance the spirit of economic community or primarily to contain China must be part of ongoing debate. The former, enhancing the spirit of economic community, is obviously what we all are hoping for. It is important that the East meets the West. Let’s just hope this means fostering the preservation of peace.  

Agio Pereira
Díli, 19.11.2011