American agenda

Published : Mar 28, 2008 00:00 IST

Visiting U.S. dignitaries outline the grand American plan to create strategic groupings in Greater East Asia.

in Singapore

UNITED STATES Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defence Secretary Robert Gates have, during their latest tours of two different parts of Greater East Asia, sought to reinvigorate the legacy-setting phase of the presidency of George W. Bush. The final push for a lasting legacy may still be made by Bush himself, should he be able to travel to China for the Beijing Olympics later this year and be capable of holding his own at that time.

For the record, neither Condoleezza Rice, who swung through South Korea, China and Japan in February, nor Gates, who visited Australia and Indonesia besides India in the same month, spoke at all of a Bush legacy. But the pointers were too obvious to be missed.

For the first time ever, a U.S. Secretary of State sounded a categorical yes in response to a question about her countrys interest in forming a multilateral security forum in north-east Asia, which covers China, Japan and the two Koreas besides bordering Russia. In a fundamental sense, the genesis of this idea had already emanated from the ongoing six-party process, which deals with the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.

However, really important now is the fact that the U.S. is said to be actively looking for ways to create a forum that might, in some ways, co-opt China in a region that continues to serve as the very nucleus of American primacy in the next big theatre of global politics.

In projecting a preference for a new multilateral forum in north-east Asia as an aspect of the Bush legacy, Condoleezza Rice was the first top U.S. official to express willingness to examine a Korean peninsula peace regime.

As for the southern reaches of Greater East Asia, Gates, during his February visit, underscored the importance of evolving a completely new security architecture for the larger region. This framework, in his view, would still position the U.S. as the force to reckon with although more countries, including India at a higher level and Indonesia as the worlds third most-populous democracy, could actively help enhance multilateral security. And Gates assiduously sought to keep Australia within the U.S.-led ambit of any elite Asia-Pacific security club that might emerge in the eventual post-Cold War order of global politics. It was a delicate task to woo the charismatic Kevin Rudds new Australia. Although Rudd is not seen by the U.S. as the Hugo Chavez of Asia-Pacific, the Bush administration is no less aware of the Australian leaders credentials for autonomous thinking. In the event, Gates was not at all cold-shouldered in Australia.

In spelling out some aspects of the new U.S. grand game of evolving an Asia-related security order, Gates made it clear he was not looking to bolster New Delhi as a military counterpoise to Beijing in this most populous region of the world. For the present, he merely hinted that the U.S. was treating its strategic ties with India on a stand-alone basis. However, long-term U.S. signals, subdued for now, about wanting to have India on its side could not also be missed.

This emerging story of the U.S. grand game is best gleaned from the words of the proponents themselves.

Responding to the American media, while in Tokyo on February 27, Condoleezza Rice said: We have had, over the last several years, an interesting experience. The North Korean nuclear issue, which could have been a source of conflict in this region, particularly, given Chinas interest, given Russias interest and given the interests of the United States, Japan and South Korea, [this] could have been a source of conflict. We could have been going in many different directions about what the North [Koreans] ought to do, what would be the benefits to the North if it engaged [the U.S. and these others], what would be the requirements of the North. It could have really been very chaotic. Instead, the North Korean nuclear issue has been a source of cooperation between these powers. And so, what we think might make sense is to find a way to extend, institutionalise if you wish, the habits of cooperation that have come out of dealing with the North Koran nuclear issue.

Lest she be misunderstood as conceptualising the nucleus of an Asian version of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation or even the core of a potentially new Northeast Asia Treaty Organisation a la the now-defunct Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO), she was quick with a number of caveats. Condoleezza Rice said: Nobody is suggesting that this is going to be a [new] alliance. Nobody is suggesting that this is going to be a security organisation. .... But imagine that we could extend those [current] habits of cooperation [on the North Korean nuclear issue] to deal with counter-terrorism matters or to deal with non-proliferation issues or to deal with humanitarian relief issues of the kind that we tried to help China with during the recent snowstorms in the south of China. So, this is a region that doesnt have really that many fora it has none for security discussion and cooperation.

Condoleezza Rice has, in effect, proposed the creation of a U.S.-led grouping that could overshadow the existing Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum (ARF) and also rival the fast-evolving Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). While the ARF is primarily a forum for discussions on security issues, the SCO is a cooperative institution. And, she has indicated that the U.S. would not be averse to taking the lead in forming a new forum in north-east Asia for both security discussion and cooperation.

There is, of course, more to Condoleezza Rices initiative than just this semantic synthesis of discussion and cooperation. The ARF, founded by the 10-member ASEAN, includes almost all players of relevance to the present and future times in Greater East Asia. The key non-ASEAN participants in this forum include the U.S. itself, China, Japan, India, Russia, South Korea, Australia, the European Union and even Pakistan and North Korea. The SCO, in contrast, is a compact forum that includes China and Russia as the major powers, Central Asian republics as prime members and India and Pakistan as observers.

Chinese diplomatic sources and Western experts have, over time, told this correspondent that China cherishes the SCO as a forum that could help shape Asias future. The SCO idea is that this can be done without the dictates of the U.S. and its long-time allies such as Japan, South Korea and Australia, who have often, in a historical sense, toed the U.S. line.

Seen in this perspective, it becomes obvious that the U.S. now wants to have its cake and eat it too in a strategic sense in Asia. At one level, Condoleezza Rice has reaffirmed that the U.S. long-established defence alliance with Japan is one of the strongest pillars of security in the Asia-Pacific region, also a strong pillar of Americas own security.

This alliance, according to her, is now being modernised in several respects, including that of enforcing a code of conduct on Japan-based American military personnel for their behaviour towards young Japanese girls and other women. In a sense, this issue, no less than resurging Japanese nationalism, might determine the long-term future of this alliance.

Condoleezza Rice has also consistently emphasised the continuing value of the military pact with South Korea. While South Korea is full of popular resentment towards the U.S. over some aspects of this alliance, newly elected President Lee Myung-bak is known to be favourably disposed towards it, at least for now.

If the U.S. now feels the need to co-opt China for security along north-east Asia despite Washingtons enduring confidence in its ties with both Tokyo and Seoul, the reasons are not far to seek.

G. John Ikenberry, an expert on politics and international affairs, and others have argued that the rise of China does not have to trigger a wrenching hegemonic transition away from the U.S., which is now at the pinnacle of the Western-oriented world order. They argue that this order, essentially liberal in orientation, could, if suitably strengthened, take under its wing a rising power like China and keep the U.S. going strong even after its current unipolar moment of unchallenged supremacy passes.

However, the critical truth is that the U.S., even in its unipolar pre-eminence, has never been an absolute superpower. It has always been a relative superpower compared with the old Soviet Union, itself a military superpower in its heyday, or the now-ascendant China or a resurgent Russia or an emerging India. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the U.S., from 2002, turned to China for help in resolving the North Korean nuclear issue in a multilateral framework. It is this persistent weakness that the U.S. now wants to convert into an attribute of strategic strength by seeking to co-opt China.

Condoleezza Rice said, unsurprisingly, in Beijing on February 26 that the United States very much welcomes the emergence of a peaceful and prosperous China. And Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Yang Jiechi, for his part, returned the compliment by saying that a prosperous United States not only serves the interest of the United States itself but also that of the world. Not empty rhetoric but sentiments of realpolitik.

The visit by Gates to Australia turned out well for the U.S., which, by trying to manage its pride and prejudices, is now clearly seeking to remain pre-eminent across Greater East Asia. Gates and Joel Fitzgibbon, his Australian counterpart, discussed plans for the mid-year withdrawal of Canberras combat troops from southern Iraq. However, it must have been music to Gates ears when Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Stephen Smith described his countrys military alliance with the U.S. as fundamental, ... long-term, ... enduring and ... indispensable.

The U.S. has, on a different plane, expressed readiness to help Indonesia reform its military and strengthen its democracy. With India, the U.S. agenda is still in a state of flux although the U.S. believes that a positive direction has been set. The guarded offer by Gates, while in New Delhi, to help India over its ballistic missile defence programme acquires importance in the context of what Indian Air Force chief Air Chief Marshal F.H. Major told this correspondent at the time of the Singapore Airshow in February. He said the IAF was now conceptualising and developing plans for a satellite-based project of eyes in the skies to improve the countrys strategic reach and capabilities. Describing the project as absolutely indigenous, he said we never discuss this with anyone, including the U.S.

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