How America’s interests collide in Asia

Philip Bowring – The International Heral Tribune

Copyright The International Heral Tribune
Tuesday, March 22, 2005
HONG KONG A world power necessarily has interests that conflict with each other. That is ever more the case in a world of many camps. The resulting dilemmas have been on display in the past week as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice toured the major capitals of Asia.
Rice’s visits were seen as a welcome effort to restore Asia to a central place in a U.S. foreign policy dominated since the Sept. 11 attacks by the Middle East, “terror” and Europe. But they also suggested that the United States has too many agendas to be able to fulfill any of them satisfactorily. Sharper focus is especially needed given the inroads that Beijing has been making into U.S. influence as a result of China’s economic growth and its diplomacy in search of resources – in Africa and Latin America as well as Asia – while Washington’s attention has been elsewhere.
During Rice’s visit to New Delhi it was apparent that America’s obsession with Iran’s nuclear program – which many in Asia see as driven by Israel – is a major obstacle to the much closer relations that appear to be in the long-term interests of the United States and India, which is a beacon of secularism and democracy.
India not only needs Iranian gas but has always seen Iran as a natural ally. A gas pipeline from Iran to India across Pakistan would also be a symbol of Indian-Pakistani rapprochement, to which the United States has contributed much.
America’s proposed sale of fighter jets to Pakistan, meanwhile, may buy support for the U.S. agenda on Iran and Afghanistan but irritates India and could slow the improvement in Indian-Pakistani relations.
During Rice’s visits to Seoul and Beijing it was apparent that America’s obsession with the North Korean nuclear issue is getting in the way of other agendas. It has long puzzled East Asia that the United States places more importance on the North Korean threat than the neighbors who would seem the most threatened. Rice made the issue the focus of her Beijing trip even though the United States remains at odds with Seoul and to a lesser extent with Tokyo on how to handle Pyongyang. China, meanwhile, uses North Korea as a handy diversion.
The central “other issue” is China’s own growing military power, which is again worrying Washington and Tokyo. This is by far the most important issue for America’s role in the world, and in Asia in particular. The United States has a strong case to make that Europe’s determination to sell advanced weapons to China is dangerous to East Asian stability. It links directly to the security of Japan and Taiwan at a time when Chinese nationalism is rising and Taiwan has again been pushed higher up Beijing’s agenda.
Yet America’s ability to influence the Europeans – latecomers to the siren call of trade with China – and to find common ground with Asian allies, has been diluted by the Korean and Iranian nuclear issues and the so-called war on terror. The United States has not been able to capitalize on the fact that many countries in Asia are wary of China even as they embrace it for economic reasons or because they view it as the next hegemon. America’s influence will be weak if it delivers its agenda as a doctrine from Washington rather than listening to the needs and interests of the Asians who are its natural allies.
The proposed appointment of Paul Wolfowitz to the World Bank also irritates developing Asia as much as Europe. Wolfowitz is competent but represents a caste of mind inappropriate given the current rise in importance of non-Western economic power and current U.S. debt levels, caused by America’s assumed right to enjoy both guns and butter.
That appointment reflects a broader disconnect between U.S. foreign and economic policies. In the medium term, U.S. relations with Asia, and China in particular, will be determined more by management of economic and trade issues than of nuclear issues. Asia’s trade surpluses and their cause, the abysmal U.S. savings rate, are equally unsustainable. Rice has no experience in this area and the Treasury Department lacks leadership.
Having led the world into a dollar-based globalization, the United States now appears to have scant idea of an overarching policy that reconciles its political and economic interests. China, meanwhile, has exploited liberal U.S. trade policies to build its domestic economy and its global reach. The end of prodigal U.S. consumption and deficits would soon remind Asia, and China in particular, of their dependence on the United States. But current policies exacerbate U.S. vulnerabilities.
Rice may prove a quick learner and her deputy, Robert Zoellick, will bring an economic and trade dimension to U.S. policies. But her trip, while welcome, has highlighted U.S. dilemmas, not strengths.

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