Gwynne Dyer: Obama, Asia, and the elephant in the room

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      Poor old Tony Blair is condemned to spend the rest of his life trying to justify his decision to help George Bush invade Iraq. He was at it again recently, insisting that the threat of Islamist extremism is the great problem of the 21st century. Western countries, he said, must put aside their differences with Russia and China in order to “cooperate” in the fight against radical Islam.

      President Barack Obama, however, is tending to his real priority in world affairs: deciding whether the U.S.-China relationship will be one of cooperation or conflict. Not that that is the stated purpose of his current Asian tour. Officially he is discussing a free-trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, with three countries that have already joined the negotiations (Japan, Malaysia, and the Philippines) and one that probably soon will (South Korea).

      It’s a very big deal. The 12 countries on the Pacific Rim that are currently in the negotiation—Canada, the United States, Mexico, Peru, and Chile on the eastern side; Japan, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand on the western side—account for nearly 60 percent of global GDP and over a quarter of world trade. But there is an elephant in the room (or rather, not in the room): China.

      China is the second-largest economy in the world and trades extensively with almost every member of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)—but it is not part of the negotiations, or at least not yet. If it is kept out permanently, many consequences will follow.

      None of the 12 governments negotiating the deal has said that it wants to exclude China. The usual formula is to say that China would be welcome to join if it can meet the standards of financial transparency and equal access to domestic markets that are being accepted by the TPP members— but of course it can’t, unless the regime is willing to dismantle the controls on the economy that it still sees as essential to its survival.

      Keeping China out of this planned free-trade area, the biggest in the world, is economically attractive to the current members, and especially to the United States and Japan: the TPP would give U.S. and Japanese companies preferential access to Asia’s markets.

      But the real motive driving the deal is strategic: they are all worried about what happens when China’s military strength matches its economic power.

      The Chinese regime insists that it has no expansionist ambitions, but it has alienated most of its neighbours by pushing hard on its extensive claims to islands in the East China Sea (the dispute with Japan over the Senkaku/Diayoyu Islands) and to seabed rights in the South China Sea (where it has disputes with Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines). They all want to nail down U.S. support, including military backing, if those disputes flare into open conflict.

      The U.S. is willing to oblige. Even before leaving on his trip, President Obama publicly assured Japan that the U.S. military commitment to defend Japan included the islands claimed by China. He will doubtless give his hosts in South-East Asia comparable assurances in private about American support in their seabed disputes with China. The TPP is not a military alliance, but it definitely has military implications.

      That is not to say that a great-power military confrontation in Asia is imminent, let alone that China is really expansionist. What drives the process, as usual, is more likely to be the threat that each side sees in the power of the other.

      Asked in a recent BBC interview about President Obama’s decision to shift U.S. naval forces from an equal division between Atlantic and Pacific to a 60:40 ratio in favour of the Pacific, retired Major-General Xu Guangyu, former vice-president of the People’s Liberation Army Defense Institute, replied: “How would (the Americans) like it if we took 60 percent of our forces and sailed up and down in front of their doorstep?”

      Then Xu added: “We want to achieve parity because we don't want to be bullied. It will take us another 30 years.” That’s no more than anybody else wants, and it’s hardly imminent.

      Former U.S. assistant secretary of state Philip J. Crowley was expressing essentially the same sentiment when, commenting on Obama’s trip, he said that “Many traditional allies...value a strong U.S. presence in the region to balance against an assertive China.”

      In other words, it doesn’t take evil intentions to produce a tragedy. In any case, it’s not likely to happen soon. The point for the moment is that the strategic balance in Asia is what the U.S. cares about most, not the Middle East or even Russia.

      The United States still drops drones on the heads of various bearded fanatics in the greater Middle East, but they are just a nuisance, not a real strategic threat.

      Washington has just sent 600 American troops (600!) to reassure allies in eastern NATO countries that are worried about Russian intentions, but it doesn’t really anticipate a new Cold War with Moscow, nor would it feel really threatened if that happened. Russia is not the old Soviet Union, and the U.S. defence budget is ten times Russia’s.

      The real strategic game is now in the Asia-Pacific region. Which doesn’t mean that it’s any less futile and dangerous than it was in the old days.



      I Chandler

      Apr 23, 2014 at 8:52pm

      [The US] doesn’t really anticipate a new Cold War with Moscow, nor would it feel really threatened if that happened."

      Eric Margolis describes how Bismarck would've been horrified to see Washington foolishly making enemies of Russia and China at the same time. Divide your enemies and set them against one another was the essence of Bismarck’s diplomacy:

      "nor would the US feel threatened if that happened. Russia is not the old Soviet Union, and the U.S. defence budget is ten times Russia’s.

      Margolis describes how the US also refuses to accept Russia as a great power:
      "Sen. McCain, the voice of America’s ignorant right, sneered that Russia was merely “a gas station masquerading as a country.” Gas stations do not produce the likes of Tolstoy, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Prokofiev, or the very smart Vlad Putin. They do, however, produce puny intellects like McCain.
      ...President Putin keeps bringing up history to justify his assertive policies towards Ukraine and Crimea. This annoys Americans, who know little about history and refuse to accept Russia as a great power- and certainly not as an equal."

      "The US still drops drones on the heads of various "
      It wasn't that long ago that the US flew drones over China...

      "The TPP is not a military alliance, but it definitely has military implications."

      Historians consider SEATO (the Manila Pact) a failure, and thus is rarely mentioned in history books:

      I Chandler

      Apr 23, 2014 at 10:30pm

      "POOR OLD TONY Blair is condemned to spend his life trying to justify his decision to help Bush invade Iraq. He was at it again, insisting that the threat of Islamist extremism is the great problem of the 21st century."

      How about al Qaeda?
      Turkey blocked YouTube,last month - hours after a recording of Turkish officials was leaked. Transcripts reveal the senior officials exploring a false flag operation involving an "al Qaeda" attack on a tomb to be used as pretext to militarily intervene in Syria:

      Turkey regards this tomb as sovereign Turkish territory under a treaty signed with France in 1921, when Syria was under French rule. About two dozen Turkish special forces soldiers permanently guard it:

      Erdogan accused the Islamic cleric Gülen, who lives in exile in the US, of being behind the leaks.


      Apr 24, 2014 at 12:32pm

      Did you mean, RICH old Tony Blair, who sold his Catholic soul for money,who is so worried about W.W.3, he suggests it's safer to wage a Christian Crusade against 'radical Muslims' in the helpless Holy Lands instead?
      The TTP is a plan to extend American corporate hegemony over Asia and to secure Allies in the coming showdown with China and Russia over corporate control of Asia.
      Dyer says that a gunfight over Asia is not imminent but wait isn't America is facing imminent bankruptcy, they have been putting it off by printing US dollars but the Russians and Chinese no longer want to be tied to an inflationary time bomb waiting to explode in their pockets.
      So what do you expect the Uncle Sam to do, take advantage of his military superiority now or wait for it to waste away over time or worse still watch his currency become worthless? No folks, he wants to wage war against Russia now and then China. It's become a matter of life and death, let's hope the Pentagon doesn't think nuclear wars are "winnable"!


      Apr 27, 2014 at 4:32pm

      The British Empire had a plan to use its military might to compensate for its waning economic might a hundred years ago, an France had the same sort of plan several decades before that. Neither country had much luck.

      The US is rather less reliant on hard power than its imperial predecessors were, and generally less keen on picking fights with serious opponents. America's soft power arsenal took a beating under the Bush years, but remains the country's biggest asset. All the US is ever going to do to try to prop up its power is negotiate. It will be very boring and not very visible. The US military, while it maintains its current supremacy, will simply be another bargaining chip, until it is no longer useful as one.

      Of course, the US might not decline at all, at least relatively, if for example all of its biggest competitors lost their agricultural industries and water supply to Climate Change. Funny how things work out.


      Apr 28, 2014 at 10:37am

      I think that the United States has time on its side. China's economy is bound to slow down sooner or later and its huge rural population will continue to be a drag for decades to come. Let's not forget that Japan was supposed to show us all how to run and manage everything not so long ago. A slowing Chinese and/or Russian economy will not necessarily return the United States to is supreme role but it would be a mistake to count the Americans out. I envisage a dual or tripartite power arrangement in the future. Europe can never be ruled out either. Nor can India.