Predicting the Unpredictable (Page 3 of 6)

Certainly, China’s killing of a weather satellite in January 2007 has only stoked such fears. The destruction of China’s polar orbit satellite, more than 500 miles above the Earth’s surface, was the first known successful satellite intercept test since the United States did something similar in 1985. In technological terms, it was a remarkable achievement. But it was also one that drew widespread international condemnation, not least because of the mass of debris that resulted from the destruction of the satellite. The Chinese were quick to claim that the test didn’t represent a threat, and was by no means a statement of its intentions. But to many in the United States and elsewhere it seemed exactly that.

Is China really on a collision course with the United States? At the start of last year, it looked almost as if a United States distracted by Afghanistan and Iraq was giving up on Asia altogether. Indeed, a feature that ran in The Diplomat’s start of year special in 2010 didn’t seem at all at odds with the prevailing mood when it asked if the “Sun is to Set on the US role in the Asia-Pacific.”

But as leading China scholar Minxin Pei notes in his essay, “just as the decline of American influence in East Asia appeared to be an iron-clad fact and an irreversible trend, something remarkable happened.” What exactly? According to Pei, it was a combination of deft diplomatic maneuvers and Chinese mis-steps that allowed the United States to once again reassert its influence in the region.

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That U.S. influence was indeed waning, Pei and many others are in no doubt of. The Chinese dragon had embarked on a patient charm offensive, with its officials paying numerous visits to neighboring capitals and lavishing key countries with promises of investment. In 1997, the United States was the biggest trading partner for all countries in East Asia. But by 2009, China had become the largest trading partner for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea. 

That first year Pei selected wasn’t plucked out of the air. It was the year of the Asian financial crisis, which started in Thailand before going on to tear through the region, prompting fears of a global meltdown. As many Chinese officials see it, the event was a watershed in China’s relationship with the region. As stock markets around the region came under pressure, China earned praise for refraining from devaluing its currency, as well as for the aid and loans it offered to ease the pain of its neighbors. It marked a shift from hard to soft power, and much ink has been spilled on the many manifestations this approach has come in – from big dollops of foreign assistance to countries such as Laos and Vietnam, to the signing of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, to the proliferation of Confucius Institutes – all wrapped up in non-interference packaging.

But if 1997 really was a watershed, why did it take more than a decade for the United States to respond to China’s diplomatic advances in the Asia-Pacific? It’s hard not to think that the distraction of two enormously expensive wars played a role in the United States taking its eye off the ball. The conflict in Iraq and all its rights and wrongs is beyond the scope of these essays, which are focused firmly on the Asia-Pacific. But even the so-called “good” war, namely the conflict in Afghanistan, has had profound implications not just for U.S. policy in Central and South Asia, but also for the broader Asia region.

The hard numbers alone make clear why for a cash-strapped United States, which came perilously close this summer to saying it wouldn’t fulfill its debt obligations, the war in Afghanistan has taken its toll. As Robert Dreyfuss writes for us in his look at the future of Afghanistan, the White House has “plugged in a meaningless figure of $50 billion per year for Afghanistan. (But unless it) envisions a very rapid withdrawal of American forces, the cost of the war in 2013 and beyond is likely to far exceed $50 billion.”

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