Obama has China on Back Foot

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Obama has China on Back Foot

After an early stutter, Barack Obama has outflanked China in the Pacific. Will the TPP seal U.S. dominance?

By 1970, Mao Zedong had realized that the Soviet Union was no longer willing to advance his vision, and in a dramatic about turn, he opened negotiations with the United States, talks that culminated in the landmark visit to China by President Richard Nixon in 1972. Geopolitics met geo-economics, and the Middle Kingdom benefitted from the lavish largess of the West, eventually becoming the factory of the world. And, 40 years later, a once poor China had become the world’s largest foreign exchange holder and had lifted 400 million of its citizens out of poverty.

As a result of such progress, the Chinese Communist Party now has a global vision of power. With a distinctly mercantilist approach to trade, and its clever ability to keep the yuan undervalued, China’s international reach is long and deep.

Militarily, the Chinese Communist Party focused first on building up the People’s Liberation Army, as well as securing its borders, from Taiwan to Tibet. President Hu Jintao, meanwhile, has also moved to strengthen the Chinese Navy, while the South China Sea was soon declared a “core” area of interest.  

On coming to office, Obama first tried a diplomatic approach with China (burdened with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan he had few options). But the Communist Party insisted in snubbing the president, most notably during the climate conference in Copenhagen. Learning from his early experiences, and adopting a more assertive security posture (on display during the operation that killed Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil), Obama has demonstrated a new leadership style. And now, with the NATO operation in Libya successfully concluded, and with U.S. forces having just officially completed their withdrawal from Iraq, the United States is in a position to pivot toward the Pacific.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), as currently envisioned, has been being formulated by the United States since 2009. During the East Asia Summit and APEC meetings last month, the White House guided ASEAN members toward the U.S. economic and security vision, to the obvious exclusion of the Chinese.

The U.S. message didn’t go unnoticed by China’s leaders – their discomfort was at times visible in their body language. And they also wouldn’t have been pleased that it has become increasingly clear in recent months that Obama is keen to build on the existing strengths of the U.S. Navy, which is in a league of its own in terms of global power projection on the surface, beneath the surface and in the air.

The uncomfortable reality for China is that the U.S. TPP vision also sees U.S. forces involved in the region from Guam to Darwin to Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, a presence that will be bolstered by the co-operation of ASEAN countries, Japan and Australia, which have decided to join this U.S.-led venture. Their cooperation will allow control of three important gateways into the South China Sea – the Malacca Strait, the Sunda Strait and the Lombok Strait.

It’s estimated that at least $5 trillion worth of cargo passes through these waters annually, much of it Chinese. These deep water channels have to be traversed by vessels including the China-max ore carriers and the ULCC / VLLC crude oil carriers, which are crucial to the Chinese economy. A sea denial strategy could therefore choke more than half of the Chinese economy. In addition, the deep sea areas south of the Indonesian island chain can be easily monitored from the northern port of Darwin, Australia, while during the recent naval commanders conference in New Delhi, India’s defense minister clearly tasked the country’s navy with controlling sea lines of communications from Madagascar to the Minicoy Islands in the Indian Ocean.

In one drive, Obama has pushed the Communist Party onto the back foot. The U.S. Navy is, in reality, about 50 years ahead of the Chinese Navy. If it can secure greater cooperation from ASEAN maritime forces, the Australian Navy and Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, the South China Sea will no longer be a “Chinese lake.”

The next push by the Obama administration will be over formulating a plan on, and gaining acceptance for, the TPP which, if Japan is included, would create a regional economic group that’s about 40 percent bigger than the European Union.

By shifting its focus away from the Middle East, the U.S. administration will be able to ease the bleeding of the U.S. economy. To date, the country has by some estimates spent a total of about $3.2 trillion on its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with very little to show for it. But with ASEAN, Australia and India seeking to upgrade their maritime forces, the U.S administration should work to ensure U.S. aerospace firms are able to secure lucrative contracts at friendly prices. This will also increase inter-operability and allow for more effective tactical practise and joint operations in the South China Sea.

Next year, the Chinese Communist Party will see a change of leadership. This comes at a time when it’s clear the present leadership has been bested by the United States, ASEAN and ANZUS nations over Beijing’s ill-conceived plans for the South China Sea.

Has the last word been said? The Chinese will likely soon emerge with a new gambit, especially if the United States is unable to recover economically and consolidate its security advantage. Time therefore is of the essence, and the recent diplomatic moves to draw Burma closer are a step in the right direction.

Interestingly, Russia, which attended the East Asia summit this year, also appears to view the TPP positively , while both Canada and the Japanese government seem enthusiastic.

Barack Obama has plenty of opportunities through the Asia-Pacific to revive the U.S. economy. The question is whether he will seize them.