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Why is the US so reticent to read the right messages in Asia and the Pacific?

  • ObamaUSJapan_ap2.jpg

    Feb. 22, 2013: President Barack Obama meets with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington.AP

  • ObamaUSJapan_ap.jpg

    Feb. 22, 2013: President Barack Obama shakes hands with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington.AP

President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe set the stage last week for Japan's inclusion in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade bloc that includes 11 nations but excludes China. With this move, the US has set a dangerous precedent and one that will immediately alienate a critical trading ally.

This confrontational style, which includes America’s military pivot towards Asia, won’t fly well with China’s equally confrontational leader Xi Jinping. Mr. Xi has already come out swinging at American swagger, noting that foreigners across the Pacific have “nothing better to do” than “engage in finger-pointing at us.” 

In the US, politics often wins the day and anti-Chinese sentiment – no matter how warranted the concerns on human rights, Tibetan sovereignty, labor and environmental standards – is a cheap shot to win patriotic points among the US populace.

Xi also pointedly took issue with American meddling and interventionism saying, in a pointed remark, that “[China] does not mess around with you”. Xi illuminates a general problem in Washington when it comes to Western diplomacy across the Pacific. In the art of diplomacy, particularly among superpowers, one must be deft at reading cultural clues and contexts and responding appropriately. Failure to do so, whether intentionally or not, has the potential to completely fetter basic progress or, worse, ignite a violent conflict that is direct or by proxy.

When it comes to Asia and the Pacific, the USA seems particularly reticent to read the right messages. Myanmar, for example, did not open up its doors because of America’s sanctions – though they may have been a small deterrent to a continued clampdown by the government now in Naypyidaw. Instead, it was motivated by more regional influences, including the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and the trading implications and consequences of continued reform-related recalcitrance.

In Myanmar, America’s economic lesson awaits. If the Obama administration is to pivot to Asia, it had better understand the subtle sinews that intersect its cultures and its subcontinents. 

The TPP is a foolish move, not simply because it overlooks environmental and labor standards that should be a part of any fair trade package, but also because China has now surpassed the US as leading a trading partner in the world. 

One hundred and twenty four nations consider China their largest trading partner, while only 76 nations claim the USA as their largest. This is a complete turnaround from six years ago, when the USA was the larger trading partner for 127 nations and China only claimed 70. The times are quickly changing.

Keeping China out of the TPP, therefore, does much to alienate other nations and little to further America’s economic security. In an unsurprising response to the TPP, a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade bloc is being established that encompasses 16 nations, including all of ASEAN and China, but not the USA. 

America first set the dangerous precedent of exclusion, which is now being replicated in response, to the endangerment of their trade-based economy. 

Don’t get me started on how bombastic the USA is with China on the currency front, given similar US involvement in manipulation of markets and the fact that China owns over a trillion dollars’ worth of American debt. Antagonism is not helpful here.

The USA’s military lesson in the Asia Pacific is equally telling. When America’s greatest potential adversary in Asia – China – has only one aircraft carrier, which it purchased from Ukraine, there is little justification for a substantial shift towards a US Navy ramp up. More US ships patrolling already controversial waters, be they in the South China Sea or near the Diaoyu-Senkaku islands, will not help resolve intracontinental land and sea disputes, nor will it advance America’s interests or allies.

There is suspicion in Washington that this ‘pivot to Asia’ was merely a financial gift to the Navy since it hadn’t seen funding increases on a par with other armed forces. Defense contractors, already flush with cash from a cowed Congress, now have new frontiers to fund, retrofit and profiteer from. The American public is wary of more ground and air forces going into Afghanistan and Iraq, but their appetite for other means of warfare, including drones, is not yet exhausted.

Instead of moving Asia disputes and trans-Pacific relations towards trade and legal structures that are more comprehensive and international in nature, the USA, in its pivot, shows how unimaginative and Cold War it remains in its thinking. There is no new innovation or multilateralism here. 

This is unfortunate. 

The USA, more than ever before, must find a way to partner with China on the real emergent threats impacted by growing populations, consumption and carbon emissions – that of climate change, global health pandemics and food security. This is hardly on America’s radar. When it’s off the agenda of the Oval Office, it similarly falls from every other nation’s radar, with the possible exception of the European Union, which continues to lead on climate change.

This couldn’t be more relevant as we consider the security priorities of the next four years. More ships and drones won’t get us closer to a more secure America, not when so much of the world is getting hotter, poorer, more crowded, and when resources are getting scarcer. Hundreds of billions of taxpayers’ dollars spent on bunker-busting bombs is money wasted on a superfluous political game, driven by defense contractors in search of a new dollar, the latest of which has clearly come from the Asia pivot.

To tackle the most grave and serious security threats requires that everyone is at the table – and that includes China and the most antagonistic of Middle East adversaries – to discuss how we’re going to feed a growing 7 billion person population, keep the planet cool enough to avoid climate catastrophe, and ensure that we avoid the easy spread of global pandemics. This must be our focus, not some payoff to ship- or-drone-making contractors, nor a political pander to the latest fear-mongering media campaign. 

Whether Obama takes the high road here depends not solely on the depths of his conscience but also on the public’s proclivity to push for something mightier than the sword. We are at that juncture now; let’s hope the non-political play wins the day.

Michael Shank is director of foreign policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.