THE SECOND US PRESIDENCY: WHAT ASIA EXPECTS?

THE SECOND US PRESIDENCY: WHAT ASIA EXPECTS?
Arabinda Acharya*
The reelection of President George W.Bush is indeed a record achievement of an incumbent who was facing a variety of foreign policy and security challenges in his first term. Under threat from almost invisible non-state actors with global reach, especially after the tragic events of September 11, the Bush administration shifted to a policy of pre-emptive defense which culminated in Washington’s controversial engagement in Iraq. Having discovered that the policy of containment “ just doesn’t hold any water,” it went on the offensive to what it said forestall or prevent hostile acts by its adversaries and if necessary, to strike terrorists abroad so as to keep the homeland safe. Translated into strategy, this meant aggressive unilateralism, less importance to multilateralism and almost total neglect of international institutions. Not surprisingly, the policy earned him not many friends, both at home and abroad. Much of Bush’s reelection campaign was defensive of the policies of the last term with little or almost no discussion about what his policies would be for Asia, if reelected.

Bush’s second term has significant strategic implications for the Asian states. Ever since the end of the Cold War and especially in the new millennium the profile of Asia in the global policy agenda of the United States is on the rise. US emerging as a “hyper-power” unmatched in military affairs, commerce, information and leadership have put Asian countries in a strategic dilemma. The countries in the region recognize the necessity to take advantage of American leadership and influence and simultaneously to contain its unilateralist ambitions. This apparent contradiction in the attitudes of the countries in Asia toward the United States would be the most significant determinant of the direction of Washington’s policy for Asia. Simultaneously, Bush would be under pressure to translate voter’s expectations to get the US lead not only on security issues but also on economics and trade.

From Washington’s perspective, the end of the Cold war meant many strategic shifts in Asia. The end of the US-Soviet rivalry removed the most obvious rationale for Sino-US cooperation and reduced the apparent significance of Southeast Asian states. Japan too has begun to reexamine its long-standing security arrangements with the United States and its own defense identity in Asia claiming greater assertiveness internationally. China is on the rise. Russia is slowly reemerging as an Asian power.

US policy towards Asia:

The Asia-Pacific has emerged as a region of tremendous transformation in view of its enormous economic growth and potential and its strategic significance. The focus of the second Bush administration would be much on the issues such as emerging China, the Taiwan Strait, the Korean peninsula, which in turn would determine Washington’s diplomatic and economic engagement with rest of the region, especially Southeast Asia.

On broad issues of foreign affairs, Bush’s policy would most likely be the same, staying on the offensive, confronting threats to America before it is too late and “striking terrorists abroad” so that the US does not have to face the threat at home and disrupting those who proliferate weapons of mass destruction. The overall policy goals are woven around the key concepts of preventing a “nuclear Pearl Harbor” – “forestall or prevent hostile acts by our adversaries [and] … if necessary, act preemptively”.

Under normal circumstances, Washington’s China policy would largely remain unchanged – keeping China engaged, enveloping it in multilateral institutions such as WTO and inducing Beijing’s respect for and adherence to universal commitments on issues such as trade, human rights, non-proliferation etc. Notwithstanding an open advocacy of a strong, peaceful, and prosperous China “as an important part of Washington’s strategy to promote a stable, peaceful, and prosperous Asia-Pacific region,” Bush administration remains more concerned about the rising China. However, over the years China, with tactful diplomacy on many contentious global issues such as terrorism, nuclear proliferation etc and subtle approach in its interactions with its Asian neighbors, has managed not only to ally much of the misgivings over its intentions, but also to increase its influence substantially.

However, China’s rise and its growing strategic and economic influence in the region have come much at the expense of the United States. At home, Bush was under attack from his electoral rival for growing trade deficit with China and resultant loss of jobs at home and for going soft on “China’s predatory currency manipulation, its violation of intellectual property rights and other unfair trade practices.” Southeast Asia also has considerable stakes on how China manages its growth. Bush would work with other Southeast Asian countries to keep China engaged, enveloping it in multilateral institutions such as WTO and inducing Beijing’s respect for and adherence to universal commitments on issues such as trade, human rights, non-proliferation etc. However, the threshold for a dramatic shift in policy would be the developments concerning Taiwan. If cross-straits relations worsen to a military flash point, Washington’s commitment to ensure Taiwan’s security would really be put to test. Though Bush administration supports a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue and emphasizes ‘One China’ policy, China may find a second Bush administration more defensive of Taiwan. The priority here would be, as Secretary of State Colin Powell during his recent visit to East Asia implied, to maintain the status quo that would deter Chinese aggression and restrain Taiwanese assertions for independence. The developments in the Taiwan straits would have significant implications for the security of the entire region. Ultimately, the effectiveness of US power and influence in the region and its ability to manage the crisis would depend on Washington’s ability and willingness to build and sustain alliances – both bilateral and importantly multilateral – in the region.

Though Bush put North Korea in his ‘axis of evil’ paradigm, he did not move beyond rhetoric and adhocism in dealing with the North Korean nuclear threats because of his pre-occupation with Iraq. His preference for dialogues and engaging Pyongyang in multilateral negotiations so far has gone nowhere. The stabilization of the Korean peninsula would entail greater Japanese-South Korean involvement and the facilitation role of China. Washington’s global force posture review involving a sweeping restructuring of US overseas military deployments is also likely to have far reaching implications for Asia. This includes scaling back US military deployments in East Asia, and repositioning many of its units in South Korea to new locations. This would not only remove an irritant for Washington in terms of domestic South Korean reactions to the presence of foreign troops on its soil, but also provide it with a strategic leverage vis-à-vis North Korea eventually to deal with it by force if necessary.

Washington sees the ASEAN region as “extremely important to the US, in both strategic and economic terms.” Economically it is Washington’s fourth largest trading partner with a three time growth in two-way trade between the US and ASEAN over the past decade. From a US perspective, the economic ties with Southeast Asia would remain a priority. An equally important focus of the Bush Administration would also be to strengthen its long-term counterterrorism policies and strategies, even as the region gravitates towards a new spiral of violence and reprisals in Southern Thailand. There has been considerable ambivalence about the US involvement in the region’s anti-terrorist strategy because of the political sensitivity of the issue among both mainstream Islamic and secular nationalist groups and its impact in the domestic politics of the countries especially Indonesia and Malaysia. Malaysia, expects Bush to consider opinion of other world leaders and other organizations on vital security issues especially on terrorism and be more mindful of the Palestinian and Iraq issues. Jakarta has already pledged to work closely with US under the reelected President as countries that have fallen victim to terrorism. Thailand expects continued cooperation on economic and security matters. Bush would like to strengthen and boost the existing cooperative arrangements such as commitment of troops and equipment to the Philippines, and counter-terror cooperation including intelligence sharing, joint investigations, training in border and immigration controls with Indonesia.’ The expected continuity in Washington’s policies would help the region immensely.

The Bush Administration has conferred the non-NATO ally status to Philippines and Thailand in view of their importance and role in its global ‘War on Terror.’ The US also has substantial bilateral understanding and agreements with Singapore and Australia, using their facilities and logistics in the operations in Iraq, working together to ensure safe navigation in Southeast Asian waters, which is the lifeline for international trade and commerce. Singapore has been able to successfully engage the Bush administration both strategically and economically often using its leadership and diplomacy to moderate Washington’s stand on many vital strategic issues including on its policy on terrorism, which has significant implications for the region. The Bush Administration would deepen these ties its economic engagements. Continued US presence is what Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsein Loong said, the ‘lynchpin for stability and security’ in the region. Washington’s task here would be to balance bilateral arrangements such as free trade agreements and economic and military assistance programmes with multilateral commitments that would resonate well with the regional sensitivities about sovereignty and non-interference. In South Asia, there is no indication that policies of Bush in a second term would be substantially different. Though India and Pakistan vie for primacy in Washington’s South Asian policy initiatives, the imperatives of geo-politics dictate that the US continues to deal with both India and Pakistan as delicately as it is doing now. South Asia has now become the inevitable principal focus of the US-led global anti-terror campaign. Washington has now established bases and access rights not only in Central Asia but also has been offered and used such facilities in both Pakistan and India. In this scenario, the role of Pakistan has been rather substantial, with Pakistani forces continuing to coordinate and collaborate in Washington’s operations against the remnants of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. The US has used its presence to extend its influence onto other parts of the region- supporting Kathmandu’s fight against the Maoists, coaxing and prodding the LTTE in Sri Lanka to move ahead with the peace process and nudging and encouraging the government in Bangladesh to monitor and rein in the extremist groups. This has catapulted the US into an unprecedented level of strategic engagement in the entire region, something to which Washington always aspired but never achieved, since Cold War days up until September 11. The Bush administration would like to keep India and Pakistan at relative calm, pushing and prodding both to settle their most contentious issue-Kashmir- through negotiations and to move ahead or at least maintain status-quo on nuclear proliferation issues.

War on Terror:

Iraq now has emerged as the new epicenter for international terrorism. The US engagement in Iraq has seriously jeopardized the global terrorism campaign and further radicalized the Muslim world against America. The magnitude of the resistance in Iraq against US-led forces has completely overturned Washington’s strategic calculus for the Middle East, which saw regime change in Iraq as a precursor for a strategic transformation of the Middle East. Bush would increasingly be under pressure for an early exit from Iraq. How the US responds to the challenge in Iraq will be a major test of US resolve and willingness to meet the challenges of being the sole superpower. The manner of the US disengagement from Iraq will be a critical determinant shaping the future challenges from radical Islamist terrorism. Kerry advocates that he would bring US troops back in four years, replaced by a US-led NATO force from allies. Ultimately however, if the US undercuts its Iraq commitments and retreats under threats, this would embolden the terrorists that they have succeeded in defeating the world’s sole surviving super power with very adverse consequences all over the world.

In sum, it would make immense sense for the Bush Administration to shift to a balanced strategy that would temper the unilateralist instincts even as it continues to assert its primacy in the region.

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