America's Asia shift not so soon

Business Times - 12 Nov 2011

America's Asia shift not so soon

As the Iran crisis may keep the US heavily engaged, both militarily and diplomatically, in the Middle East, its 'Pacific Century' will take a long time to come


BEFORE US President Barack Obama left Washington for Honolulu, Hawaii, where he is hosting leaders of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) forum for their annual summit this weekend, American officials reiterated once again renewed US commitment to diplomatic and economic engagement in Asia.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton - the first top American envoy to leave for Honolulu to attend the meeting of the regional grouping and who will travel to the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia later this month - has been underscoring what she described the Obama administration's vision of 'America's Pacific Century' in several public addresses and published commentaries.

In fact, trying to convey to US economic and military partners in Asia its determination to project power in the region, Mrs Clinton will travel to Bali on Nov 17-19 for the East Asia Summit and the US-Asean Leaders Meeting, the first time that the United States is attending this regional forum.

Mr Obama will also travel to Bali for a meeting with East Asian leaders and will visit Australia as part of a calculated strategy to raise American profile in the region.

So has the Asia-Pacific region been placed on the top of the US foreign policy agenda after years during which the focus of American diplomacy and national security has been on the Broader Middle East? Some East Asian officials and pundits have criticised Washington for investing so much of its time and resources on the Middle East-centred war on terrorism, including the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, while treating the dramatic geo-political and economic changes taking place in Asia - signified by the rise of China as a global power - as a foreign policy sideshow.

Changing priorities

American officials insist that they are going to change their diplomatic priorities - and shift their full attention to Asia, now that the Obama administration is starting to pull out US troops from Iraq and preparing to end its decade-long war in Afghanistan in the next year or two.

The narrative that is being shaped is that Mr Obama, who was born in Hawaii and who described himself as the 'first Pacific President', hosting the Apec leaders meeting in one of America's territorial possessions, symbolises these changing priorities.

And, let us not forget, America is underscoring its membership in a group that represents the most dynamic part of the global economy at a time when the economies of the European Union are in the midst of a devastating crisis.

'The future of politics will be decided in Asia, not Afghanistan or Iraq, and the United States will be right at the centre of the action,' Mrs Clinton wrote in the November issue of the Foreign Policy magazine. 'Harnessing Asia's growth and dynamism is central to American economic and strategic interests and a key priority for President Obama,' she wrote in her article, stressing once again that America's diplomatic and economic frontiers this century lie, not in the Middle East (or Europe), but in Asia.

Kurt Campbell, US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said during a presentation this year that US foreign policy needed to transition from the Middle East to Asia. 'One of the most important challenges for US foreign policy is to effect a transition from the immediate and vexing challenges of the Middle East to the long-term and deeply consequential issues in Asia,' Mr Campbell said in August.

East Asia would 'shape the future of the 21st century', said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. Americans 'will see him (Obama) advocating for US jobs and US businesses', Mr Rhodes said. 'Increasingly, the centre of gravity in the 21st century is going to make the Asia-Pacific critical to all of our interests.'

All of this may sound good to many East Asian ears. Certainly, the Obama administration has moved beyond rhetoric and seems to be putting its money where its mouth is, increasing its economic and military cooperation with partners such as South Korea, India, Australia, and the Asean countries that have called for the US to expand its presence in the region as a counterweight to China - but without igniting a confrontation between Beijing and Washington.

The US Congress recently approved a free trade agreement with South Korea and Mr Obama has indicated that his administration was going to speed up the negotiations on the establishment of another free-trade system, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which would include several Asian countries and Australia.

But the celebration of a new US Asia-centric strategy in Honolulu and all the talk about effecting 'a transition from the immediate and vexing challenges of the Middle East to the long-term and deeply consequential issues in Asia', is premature.

The US remains captive to Middle East politics and issues. And now there are some indications that it may be drawn into a new and costly diplomatic and military confrontation, this time with Iran.

To begin with: The US remains committed to protecting the interests of two of its leading military partners there, Israel and Saudi Arabia (and other Arab oil-producing states in the Persian Gulf) because of the inconclusive outcomes of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan coupled with the collapse of two regimes with pro-American leaders in the region (Egypt and Tunisia).

In that context, the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) report on Iran's nuclear programme claims that there is 'credible' evidence that Iran has been seeking to obtain nuclear weapons technology. IAEA chief Yukiya Amano's own impartiality is in question, now exposed thanks to WikiLeaks, but it raises the possibility that Israel might bomb Iran's nuclear sites.

Major war

Indeed, Israeli leaders have warned that they might do that if the US and the international community do not force Iran to end its nuclear programme, raising the prospect of an Israeli military attack against Iran - with or without US approval - that would almost certainly draw in the Americans as well as some of Iran's military partners, such as the Hizbollah militia in Lebanon. Such a crisis could turn into a major regional war with damaging consequences for the global economy, including rising energy prices and that could bring the current faltering global economic recovery to a halt.

It would also ensure that Washington would remain locked into its 'immediate and vexing challenges of the Middle East', never mind its profession of interest in East Asia.

However, the notion that Israel would attack Iran without a green light from its major global backer does not seem like a realistic scenario. More likely, the Obama administration and the Israelis, with support from the Europeans, have been orchestrating the series of recent media reports about a possible Israeli attack on Iran as part of a coordinated diplomatic and psychological strategy aimed at persuading the international community - with China and Russia being the main targets of this campaign - to join in an United Nations-backed effort to impose new draconian sanctions on the Iranians.

Moreover, the Americans want to ensure that most of the US troops would be out of Iraq and do not become hostages to possible Iranian military retaliation before this diplomatic campaign gains momentum and leads to, say, a US-led naval blockade of Iran.

The Obama administration is trying not to repeat the mistakes that the Bush administration made in Iraq. Hence the reliance on a report issued by a UN agency, rather than claims from its own spy agencies or those of its allies. The strategy seems to be slow but steady multilateral pressure on Iran and a proclaimed commitment to employ military means only as the last resort. Washington is also hoping that such a strategy to contain Iran would allow the Americans to deploy some of its troops leaving Iraq in Qatar and other states in the Gulf.

But even if the best-case-scenario excludes a war with Iran, it still raises the prospects of continuing heavy US military and diplomatic involvement, with all its budget-sapping potential, in the Middle East. 'America's Pacific Century' will be a long time coming.

Copyright © 2010 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.


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