US is starting to lose its grip on Asia

Victor Mallet – The Financial Times

Copyright The Financial Times August 22 2005 20:17
If anyone doubts that the balance of power in the Pacific is changing, they should consider this week’s Chinese-Russian military exercises.
It is hard to imagine an event more discomfiting for Washington than the first combined show of force by an ex-superpower and a future superpower that have buried their differences and discovered a common interest in challenging the US, the only superpower of today.
The mutual suspicion that bedevilled Sino-Soviet relations in the cold war has not entirely disappeared. But China’s Communist leaders and Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, are wary of the spread of democracy on their borders and have a shared fear of encirclement by the US and Nato. Beijing and Moscow have jointly demanded a US withdrawal from military bases in central Asia.
Russia has weapons to sell. China, which is modernising its armed forces, has the money to buy them. The exercises in Vladivostok and China’s Shandong province are billed as a UN-style peace mission. In fact, the drills, involving nearly 10,000 troops, allow China to practise an amphibious assault of the kind that could be used one day against Taiwan, while Russia gets to show off long-range bombers it might sell to the Chinese air force.
From a strictly military point of view, the US has no immediate reason to worry. Its technology is years ahead. And the US has its own allies: yesterday, US and South Korean forces began their annual exercise, based on a simulated North Korean attack and said to be the world’s biggest drill in computerised command and control.
The situation on the Korean peninsula, however, illustrates how rapidly Washington’s influence in east Asia is waning. Surprisingly few South Koreans share US alarm about North Korea’s nuclear weapons programmes. On the contrary, opinion polls show that most young South Koreans would side with Pyongyang and against the US in a war.
The number of US troops stationed in South Korea is being cut by a third to about 25,000 as part of a global reorganisation of US forces and the drive for “strategic flexibility”. This makes military sense, but there is a political imperative as well: South Korea does not want US troops based on its territory to be used in any operation that might offend Beijing.
Like most countries in east Asia, including Australia, South Korea is being drawn into China’s economic orbit. There is pessimism in Washington about the six-party talks on North Korea involving China, the US, Japan and Russia as well as the two Koreas. The suspended fourth round of talks is due to restart next week, but only Japan can be relied on to take a hard line on Pyongyang, and then mainly because the Japanese are incensed by North Korea’s past kidnappings of Japanese citizens.
Even in Japan, Washington’s most important Pacific ally, the outlook for the US is beginning to look cloudy. Junichiro Koizumi, prime minister and friend of George W.?Bush, has called an election next month. The main issue is economic reform, but to the left of Mr Koizumi is the Democratic Party of Japan, which has pledged to withdraw Japanese forces from Iraq if it wins; to his right are nationalist politicians as anti- American as they are anti-Chinese.
The US is casting around for new friends in Asia and courting India. Washington has even relaxed a ban on military exercises with New Zealand, imposed two decades ago to punish the country for its stand against nuclear weapons.
It will not be enough. Washington’s problem in Asia is that while its military superiority is overwhelming, its regional diplomacy is weak, partly because of the distraction of the war in Iraq.
When US officials or politicians do intervene in Asian affairs, the emphasis is not on democracy but on terrorism or on protecting American industry from Chinese competition. This has left the US out of tune with Asian peoples as well as governments. The US is enthusiastic enough about human rights and democracy to annoy presidents Putin and Hu Jintao, but not bold enough to inspire the ordinary people who should be its natural allies. For all the power of the US Navy, American influence in the Asia-Pacific is in decline.

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