China strides, US shrinks in Asia

2013-10-08Asia Times

BEIJING - Who remembers Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, the Southern states that fought the Northern states lead by president Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War? Barack Obama, really and symbolically black, looks like the true vindication and completion of that war, which broke and then united the United States and turned an assembly of fairly autonomous states into a nation.

The civil war was fought symbolically as well as for the freedom of the black slaves - and thus for the freedom of every man in the US and in the world - adding a new dimension to the American identity that greatly helped the country to become great globally. Lincoln brought the country to war and marked this new identity, attained through victory in a very bitter conflict. Had Lincoln been defeated, he would have become a footnote in history.

In a way, seen from afar, Obama, who Spielberg's homonymous movie suggests is Lincoln's anointed successor, is facing a similar challenge. He must create a new American identity by fighting his internal enemies, in this case the Republicans, almost as Lincoln fought the Confederates. As freeing the slaves was the purpose 150 years ago, now the goal is to establish a mindset of greater solidarity in order to care for the less fortunate. This can be a new dimension of the American identity. Here the battle over health care is both real and symbolic.

In a nutshell, Obama believes that providing a basic health care for everyone, even those who have nothing, is a basic human right and overrides all other concerns. The Republicans argue, simply put, "We can't afford it", and thus it should be put to rest either for now or forever. Some of them, the Tea Party people go even further by fighting massive interventions in social affairs, and thus they challenge the principles moving Obama and his supporters.

This is in a way similar to the debate over freedom for the slaves. The Northerners wanted freedom for the slaves, overriding all concerns about what that freedom could mean for Southern society; Southerners wanted conversely to keep their society, which would be disrupted by freeing the slaves.

Here, there are many other considerations. In both cases, there is an effort to make the presidency stronger before the other powers of the state. There is idealism in the face of a conservative realism - and there are certainly many other elements, but to make it simple, allow me to focus on just these.

What is starkly different about these two historical moments is the international context. There was no globalization 150 years ago, and America was indeed pretty isolated. Therefore it could fight an internal war without affecting or being too affected by the international situation. Europe was the absolute center of the world: England was expanding its reach from its Indian powerhouse, France was dreaming of a Napoleonic return, Russia and Austria were tottering and harking back to a world that was no more, Prussia was on the rise, and Italy had just been born. China was collapsing in the midst of an earth-shattering primitive civil war, pitching pseudo-Christian Taiping rebels against Manchu imperial forces. Nobody cared or was too interested in meddling much with an arcane civil war in America.

Now, things are totally different, and it is not only America's future but also the future of the international order at stake.

Last week, Obama, locked in his fight with the Republican Party, canceled a much-anticipated trip to Asia. This is the region to which he had announced he would "pivoted" his foreign policy, trying to contain the regional growth of China. At the same time, Obama's competitor, Chinese President Xi Jinping, took center stage. He triumphed in Malaysia and Indonesia by promising China's neighbors expanded trade and investment.

In move typical of the game the Chinese call weiqi and the Japanese go, with America supporting Vietnam and the Philippines to surround China, Xi decided to support Indonesia and Malaysia to surround Vietnam and the Philippines. Moreover, if the US, constrained by growing budget difficulties and by an impending financial crisis that could lead to a default on the US debt, is apparently willing to leave Asia now, will it leave again in a few months or years? Conversely, despite all its internal problems, China has a tradition of not going back on its international commitments, and despite possible domestic economic difficulties, it will not go back on its word to increase regional commerce.

Moreover, China is not simply moving eastward, to the sea. Beijing has grand plans and deep pockets to create a huge continental railway network that would link Asia to the European economic powerhouses, bypassing all sea routes. There are talks with Kazakhstan to build a new line that would boost transport and communication in the country and restart a new version of the old Silk Road. Talks are occurring with Thailand to build a line going through Laos or Myanmar, and there are projects to extend the Tibetan railway through India. Meanwhile, another railway could stretch from India to Vietnam via Myanmar and Thailand. In other words, a cobweb of railways pivoting around China could be built in the coming decades, transforming the economic and political dynamic of the region.

This could objectively decrease China's focus on the eastern and southern seas, which is currently causing tension with Japan and the Philippines. So far, the only difficulty in this grand plan is that too much power was given to the often inefficient and corrupt railway companies. If Beijing decides to take on a more central and strategic role, things could move faster and more efficiently.

Certainly, China's momentum is not without risks.

India has plunged into a deep economic crisis that has in a few months sunk its gross domestic product by about 25% through a devaluation of its currency. This is buoying the fortunes of the nationalist party (BJP) and its leader Narendra Modi, known for his anti-Chinese stances. The crisis could bring Modi to power or simply make his anti-Chinese positions more popular. India could then decide to tighten its security and military collaboration with Japan and Vietnam, with the backing of Russia, which is concerned about Chinese inland expansion in Central Asia and Chinese economic and demographic pressure on Siberia.

These are future scenarios to which China can respond in many articulated ways. The issue is that in all of these scenarios America will be absent unless it makes itself present, as it has no geographical proximity to the region. Here, the US's partial withdrawal from Afghanistan is already an important sign of a greater withdrawal from an important outpost, which could be crucial for the idea of an Asia pivoting around China.

Here the question goes back to Obama. In contrast to Lincoln, Obama has to fight on internal and external fronts, both equally important for the political and economic survival of his nation. The US can dismiss its many blunders in the Middle East, as the region is becoming strategically less relevant with the growing exploitation of American shale gas, but it can't do so with Asia.

As the present and future powerhouse of global growth, the region is vital for American long-term interests, and even a momentary American absence, like that of last week, sends a signal to the region to brace for a Plan B: what if America is not in the area? This absence, contrary to some Chinese analysts' predictions, may increase regional tensions. Some countries might more or less meekly yield to China's rise, but others, with a different history - like India, Japan, Vietnam, or Russia - could hasten preparations to oppose Beijing's ambitions. They could feel that without America's presence in the region, they are left to their own devices and with their history of decisive hostility to China.

In a way, then, Obama could win or lose everything. If he wins the "war" with the Republicans, he will have renewed energy domestically to go back to Asia with a clearer mandate and a new mission. If he fails, he will be some kind of lame duck until the end of his presidency, and thus he will be weaker in Asia, pushing everybody there toward a Plan B. In fact, even if an Asian country were to hope for a return of America to the region after a defeated Obama's term ends, nobody could bank on it. Nobody knows who Obama's successor will be, and what that person will be thinking in three, four years, while Asian affairs will have rapidly evolved.

Therefore, most of the US continuity in Asia hinges on Obama's victory over the Republicans. If he wins now at home, he could be a true heir of Lincoln renewing American energies; if he loses, he could become a second and perhaps even lesser Jefferson Davis - then the US will have to find somebody else who could truly re-launch the country. (2013-10-08 Asia Times)


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