The “color revolution” will continue to be the preferred route for the United States in effecting regime change in Central Asia. But the limits to the United States’s capacity to intervene also cannot but be noted. As a perceptive observer recently noted, the US is a “renter rather than a bona-fide landlord of Eurasian property” – and a renter can always be evicted by the landlord.
Second, the Central Asian countries cannot but find odious the violent regime changes in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya and wouldn’t want to go through similar experience. Most important, both Russia and China are following active regional policies with regard to the Central Asian countries, which give the latter much space to withstand US pressures.
The fact remains that the Central Asian countries are an integral part of the so-called Northern Distribution Network [NDN], which is increasingly gaining in strategic importance as the main supply route for the US’s afghan war due to the rupture and distrust in US-Pakistan relations leading to the closure of the transit routes through Pakistan.
Effectively, this means that “Russian policymakers may now take comfort from the fact that NATO’s Afghan mission is hostage to Moscow’s goodwill”, to quote Richard Weitz, director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the prominent Washington think tank Hudson Institute. Weitz wrote:
“The NDN cannot function without access to Russian territory or in the face of Russian opposition, given Moscow’s decisive influence in the former Soviet republics in Central Asia. From the perspective of meeting NATO’s logistical needs in Eurasia, Moscow is in a pivotal position.”
In geopolitical terms, this would mean that the Central Asian states would continue to look up to Moscow as the main provider of security for the region and so long as Moscow continues to enhance its political, economic and security interests in the region commensurate with its status as a great power, the US’s capacity to work itself into the “right of history” will remain severely restricted.
This brings us back to the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific as the two principal theatres where the new US defence strategy can be expected to play out in a near term. The document is quite transparent that the US intends to pursue robust policies in these two regions with the intent to maximize its influence and the resource constraints in the Pentagon will not be allowed to come in the way.
The document asserts the continuance of the US’s interventionist approach to the Middle East and its quest for regional hegemony. It sees the Arab Spring as posing challenges to the US strategy but also sees “opportunities” presenting themselves.
In the short term, there might be uncertainties about the trajectory of developments in the region but the US can expect a “more stable and reliable partnership” with the new governments that have representative character. Three directions of the US regional strategy have been singled out for emphasis: support of the Gulf Cooperation Council [GCC] Member states; containment of Iran; and “standing up for Israel’s security.”
The document underlines that the US’s big military presence in the region will remain as a priority. All in all, therefore, the document’s main thrust is that US will do whatever it takes to perpetuate its regional hegemony in the Middle East. The strong affirmation of support for the ruling oligarchies in the GCC territory translates as great determination to go to any length to keep the control over the vast oil and gas resources of the region.
The US’s differentiated approach to the Arab Spring – low-key approach to Bahrain, Jordan or Saudi Arabia and high-pitched revolutionary fervor with regard to Libya and Syria – drives home the point that geopolitics will be the ultimate detriment of the US approach. To that end, the US will not countenance any “regime change” in the GCC states. On the contrary, the US will persevere with the efforts to force a regime change in Syria.
The approach to the Arab Spring is directly linked to the other two templates of the US’s regional strategy, namely, containment of Iran and safeguarding Israel’s regional pre-eminence. The geopolitical reality is that Iran’s quest of regional power and influence puts it at odds with the US and Israeli interests.
Equally, Iran’s rise as a regional power stems from a multiple factors, which are primarily lying in the domestic sphere and over which neither the US nor Israel has any capacity to influence – Iran’s indigenous capabilities in science and technology, its success in defeating the US sanctions, its comprehensive military strength, its nuclear technology, its political system with an appreciable social base and its unifying ideology.
The contradiction is, therefore, becoming very acute. For the US, the emergence of an authentic regional power in the Middle East is unthinkable. The US simply cannot allow any dilution of its dominance of the strategically important region. But Iran’s emergence as a regional power threatens to do precisely that by transforming the geopolitics of the Middle East.
All the tricks in its armory the US has employed in the past 3 decades to destroy or weaken the Iranian regime. But Iran has remained defiant and is unwilling to give in. Thus, a flashpoint has arisen. What other option is the US left with other than launching a war on Iran?
Have gun, will travel
The US defence strategy document’s most sensational part is with regard to the US’s “rebalancing” toward the Asia-Pacific region. In a way, the document carries forward and expands on the US’s National Security Strategy of 2010 to renew America’s global leadership and advance its interests in the 21st century by “building upon the sources of [US’s] strength at home, while shaping an international order that can meet challenges of our time.”
The approach principally involves increasing the US’s strategic investment in the Asia-Pacific by exploiting the fears and complexes with regard to China’s rise in the region among the regional states in the Asia-Pacific, some of whom also happen to have unresolved territorial disputes with China (which are intractable) or have had military conflicts with China in modern history.
In particular, South China Sea has been an arena of regional unrest where the US has to an extent succeeded in stirring up regional sentiments and resistance to an “assertive” China. Clearly, the US will continue to disregard China’s warnings against the involvement of “external forces” in the affairs of the region and the US strategy will be to instigate the regional opinion to mobilize against China under its leadership.
The US has also been harping on China’s modernization of its military as lacking in transparency, thereby playing up the regional apprehensions of a “revanchist” China. The latest document suggests a substantial increase in the US’s military expenditure in the Asia-Pacific so that its claim to be the provider of security to the regional countries gains in credibility. An arms race in the region will suit the US interests and the “China threat” lends itself to promote the US’s arms exports to the region.
The strong likelihood is that the US will do its utmost to accentuate the contradictions in the relations between the regional states on the one hand – especially India and Japan – and China on the other hand. The US initiative to launch a trilateral dialogue with Japan and India (which held its first session in Washington in December) can be seen in this light. Equally, the US attempt to hustle India into an Asian bloc under its leadership is apparent from the defence strategy document’s pithy reference to India:
“We will also expand our networks of cooperation with emerging partners throughout the Asia-Pacific to ensure collective capability and capacity for securing common interests. The United States is also investing in a long-term strategic partnership with India to support its ability to serve as a regional economic anchor and provider of security in the broader Indian Ocean region.”
Gatecrashing at interval time
However, the success of the US policy is predicated on several factors, the principal among them being the US’s ability to offer an economic partnership to the regional countries that provide with them with an alternative to moving into the Chinese economic orbit as is happening today. China is likely to maintain its high growth rate for at least another decade by inducing greater consumption by its 1.3 billion population, which is acquiring bigger disposable incomes.
As China’s GDP increases, the countries in the region – not only those in its periphery but even the outlying countries – cannot resist the attraction of the Chinese market and they are bring drawn into China’s economic orbit. The countries of the region are mindful of the growing reality that their huge dependence on the Chinese market could give Beijing over time the leverage to “punish” those who work against its interests.
In sum, they realize that the balance of power in the region has changed, while at the same time, the paradox is that they also enjoy benefit in trade and investment and are tapping into China’s growth, including Australia, which is the US’s staunchest ally in the Asia-Pacific.
An article co-authored by the minister mentor of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew over an year ago had suggested, “There is still time for the US to counter China’s attraction by instituting a free-trade agreement with other countries in the region. This would prevent these countries from having an excessive dependence on China’s market… outlook for a balanced and equitable relationship between the American and Chinese markets is becoming increasingly difficult.
Every year China attracts more imports and exports from its neighbors than the US does from the region. Without an FTA, Korea, Japan, Taiwan and the ASEAN countries will be integrated into China’s economy – an outcome to be avoided.”
But this is easier said than done. If anything, the prevailing mood in the US against any new FTA agreements is only hardening and protectionist sentiments are in evidence all over. Besides, this is also a game that China can play.
And so far while the Americans and Lee may see China as an economic threat, the countries of the region – like Europeans, too – continue to be lured by the promise of China as an economic opportunity. In sum, instead of being prescriptive, China has been so far about adaptation and creating “win-win” situations with its Asia-Pacific partners.
The new defence strategy’s overt emphasis on a cold war with China aims at neutralizing the widespread perception in the Asia-Pacific that the US’s “unipolar moment” is ending. However, the US’s prolonged absence from the region while engaged in the “war on terror” for the past decade obviously created a new paradigm where the countries of the region began pondering over the stability, security and prosperity of the region without Uncle Sam’s leadership.
New regional mechanisms of regional cooperation took shape such as the “10+1” [10 ASEAN member countries plus China] and new approaches to developing a matrix of political, economic and security ties made substantial headway. In essence, therefore, the US is virtually gatecrashing at the interval time into an Asian drama that didn’t envisage it or think it necessary to cast it as a lead player.
Besides, China is not standing idle, either. A powerful instrument in its hands is the unprecedented level of its economic interdependency with the US. The fact that President Barack Obama has begun the US’s diplomatic calendar for 2012 by deputing Treasure Secretary Timothy Geithner to Beijing as special envoy – so soon after the strident rhetoric on the sidelines of the APEC session in Honolulu and the East Asia Summit in Bali – underscores Washington’s keenness to set a positive tome for the US-China relationship.
Beijing of course gleefully welcomed the opportunity to kiss and make up. Geithner’s talks with the Chinese leadership conveyed the message that the two countries have no alternative but to cooperate with each other.
With the US economic recovery proving slower than expected, China’s market is of the highest importance for boosting the growth rate in America. Again, China’s continued purchase of the US treasury bonds is vital for the US’s capacity to maintain financial sustainability. There is also a curious convergence of interests lately with regard to sequestering their respective economies from the adverse fallout of the Eurozone crisis. Against the backdrop of Geithner’s talks in Beijing, the government-owned China Daily took note:
“Although some officials in the [Barack] Obama administration have joined the China-bashing game, top China hands within and around the White House seem to be more clear-minded, which is why the yuan-related currency bill was shelved in the House of Representatives and the Treasury Department has not labeled China a ‘currency manipulator’…
“Prior to Geithner’s visit, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell visited Beijing and discussed recent developments on the Korean peninsula, and Vice-President Xi Jinping is expected to visit the US in February. Hopefully, such high-level visits from both sides will help make sure that Sino-US relations stay on the right track.”
In sum, the US’s “rebalancing” of its military capacities to the Asia-Pacific has complex motives of engaging China deeper while at the same time simultaneously on a parallel track tapping into the growing prosperity of the countries of the region by playing on their insecurities and shepherding them under US leadership.
Both enterprises are needed for the recovery of the US economy. The net result is going to be that contrary to the apparent intention of the US defence strategy to proclaim a new cold war in Asia Pacific, the high probability is that Washington may end up getting at the most a mere half a Cold War. And a Cold War is worthless unless it is comprehensive and one hundred percent wholesome.
The harsh reality is that the US can no longer inspire confidence in the world community about its “unipolar moment”. The latest figures as of last September show that the size of the US’s national debt has reached a new milestone – 15.23 trillion dollars – and it is now as big as the whole of the American economy. The long-term forecast is that the debt will row faster than the economy, and the economy may need a 6 percent annual growth merely to keep pace with the galloping debts.
Melkulangara BHADRAKUMAR is a former career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. Devoted much of his 3-decade long career to the Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran desks in the Ministry of External Affairs and in assignments on the territory of the former Soviet Union. After leaving the diplomatic service, took to writing and contribute to The Asia Times, The Hindu and Deccan Herald. Lives in New Delhi.