The State Department will end the calendar year with an Asia-Pacific flourish. From last month's announcement of a new base for the marines in northern Australia to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit to the reclusive regime of Myanmar, America has stepped up its engagement with the entire region. For all its co-operativist overtones in Europe, the Obama administration is practicing realpolitik in Asia and this will likely be the template for the State Department for at least a generation.
American global influence has sought one overarching foreign policy goal (as stated in George Kennan's American Diplomacy) over the last century — keep Eurasia divided, but stable, between several competing blocs. Having brought the entire Western hemisphere under a sphere of influence, with little need to worry about territorial defense but a commensurately large concern to keep the trade lanes in two oceans free, there has always been a tempting logic — despite periods of politically-motivated isolationism — to meddle around the world. To prevent the establishment of destabilizing regional hegemons, America has gone to war with Germany (twice) and Japan.
Today, China is attempting to establish its own sphere of influence in the Pacific region, arguably a much more difficult project than in the Americas. While its official allies — North Korea and Myanmar (sometimes) — and its nascent sphere are still relatively weak, China is the dominant trading partner in the entire region. But China is playing in a neighborhood with several potential peer competitors that aren't, and won't, be easily cajoled into bandwagoning with Chinese influence. American foreign policy seeks to make sure that the likes of Japan, South Korea, and Australia — through preferential economic and military ties — remain competitors. China's continuing rise and growing trading and military ties will make it a more attractive ally in the years to come.
And this is why American foreign policy is making deliberate and very visible steps in the region. American allies in the region are, more or less, compliant and have very good reasons to want an enduring American presence in the Pacific. Obviously, the deployment of 2,500 marines at the very edge of Asia isn't going to significantly alter the balance of power in the region — but it does send a very important message that America isn't going to let China absorb the South China Sea the way the U.S. absorbed the Americas. It also allows the nations of the Pacific to stand up to Chinese influence a little better (albeit with an American crutch).
This move has been criticized from some quarters as being unncessarily belligerent; that all it does is "piss off China.” From a limited point of view, this is true. But the marines are a very visible and vital sign to the rest of the region that the hard-fought influence America has accumulated since World War II will not be relinquished so easily. It's a matter of reassuring alliances and establishing commonality with the region — we're in it together.
Overtures to Myanmar too can be seen to attempt to woo a close Chinese friend and wean them off Beijing's influence. Myanmar's potential strategic influence — sharing land borders with India and China, boasting superb natural wealth, and straddling some of the world's busiest shipping lanes — cannot be overstated. For Beijing, Myanmar is an ideal partner, already incorporated into the Chinese “string of pearls” naval base policy. Clinton's visit there might very well herald a new competition for influence.
Underpinning these new moves are also brand new assumptions about American foreign policy. With Europe more or less politically secure, Russia only concerned with its near abroad, and both Brazil and India still too focused at home to really engage on foreign adventures, American focus shifts inexorably to sphere-building in Asia. And as the neoconservative tact for 'nation-building' and direct intervention losing credibility, America will have to manage its Asian allies — emerging economies with assertive national populations — with a lot more finesse. More carrots, less sticks, better deals.
Ultimately, we can expect American engagement in Asian politics to increase in the next decade. Even as the missions in the Middle East (finally) wind down, it is clear from the State Department has already picked its next region to focus on.
Photo Credit: U.S. Navy