In American recessional, Obama visits as US global influence begins to recede

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President Barack Obama is visiting Manila at a time US influence is receding in the world. Once the “indispensable country,” an over-extended America is starting to lose its strategic primacy.

Washington’s once-brash idealism in its foreign relations is being replaced by a chastened view of what the United States could do to shape the course of a world globalizing at break-neck speed. Items:

• In the Middle East, the American incursions in Iraq and Afghanistan seem only to have left the region worse-off than at their start. The intransigence of its ally Israel has just driven together moderates and radicals in the Palestinian statehood movement.

Putin draws the line
• In Ukraine, Putin’s Russia is setting limits on the expansion of western influence in Eastern Europe since the implosion of the Soviet Union. We may also expect Moscow to try and reclaim its satellite states incorporated into the western military alliance, NATO.


Since 2000, Vladimir Putin has presided over Russia’s emergence from the ruins of the Soviet Union. His macho leadership and appeals to religion-based nationalism are restoring Russian pride; market reforms and surging hydrocarbon exports are raising living standards for everyday Russians.

• In East Asia, a “rejuvenated” China is threatening to rollup America’s forward bases and security alliances in the Western Pacific. So that President Obama is having to deal with foreign-policy challenges on two fronts—and at a time Washington politics is at its most dysfunctional.

No wonder, then, that on the Ukraine crisis, Moscow seems to be working with greater forethought and economy of means.

The University of Chicago geo-politician John J. Mearsheimer faults Washington for even thinking it could safely subvert such a core satellite from Russia’s doorstep and integrate it into the western alliance.

Once the elephant and the whale
China and the United States—one a land and the other a sea power—were once natural allies, facing up to Japan and then the USSR. The “elephant” and the “whale,” the eminent journalist Walter Lippmann called them.

China’s morphing into a competitive maritime power may have been an unintended consequence of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms that, beginning in 1980, have made China an export and industrial power with worldwide interests.

All of East Asia—China most of all—benefited from the stability the Americans imposed on our home region after the Pacific War. Between 1965 and 1990, the region’s economies grew at rates the world had never seen before.

China—after surpassing Germany as the largest exporter in 2009—overtook Japan to become the second-largest economy in 2010. Now only the United States is ahead in GDP terms—and even that may change by 2030. Yet when Deng’s reforms began, China’s economy was smaller than Italy’s and just about the same size as Canada’s.

We must expect Beijing to become even more assertive as its economic and military power grows. Its military spending is rising by double digits. Then, too, the rift between Russia and the western alliance gives Beijing more room to play hard-ball global politics.

Rearmament for Japan?
Mr. Obama is using concern over China’s aggressiveness on the China Sea to strengthen US security ties with its East Asian allies. In Tokyo, his call for Japan to take a more active role in the region is certain to find favor among the ruling conservatives.

Japan itself has been pivoting from Russia toward China. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is fomenting a nationalist resurgence through his electoral rhetoric and symbolic acts like his obeisances to the militaristic Yakusuni Shrine.

Tokyo has been rebuilding its military and reaching out to its neighbors. Two years ago, it held the first Japan-India joint naval maneuvers on the Indian Ocean. More recently, it set up early warning radar systems close to the disputed Senkaku-Diaoyu rocks on the East China Sea.

Japan keeps no nuclear weapons stockpile; but it’s no secret that, since 1969, it has had the economic and technical potential to make them quickly. Through its space and satellite programs, Tokyo also keeps abreast of great-power technologies for their delivery.

Triumphalist world view
Already China sees its rise to wealth and power as signifying a transformed world order: the shifting of the center of global gravity from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Beijing demands that Washington acknowledge China’s arrival as a great power—with a rightful role in “shaping new global rules and norms.” Indeed, Beijing seems close to claiming that, for the emerging countries, its post-Maoist development model—which combines the dynamism of the market with the stability of state direction and control—is a viable alternative to America’s “winner-take-all” capitalism.

The Communist Party plans to move 250 million rural people to big cities over the next 12-15 years. If this mass migration succeeds, it should keep China’s GDP growth close to Deng-era levels, broaden Beijing’s tax base, and indulge even more lavish military spending.

Showing the red flag    
I think it reasonable to assume China will become stronger proportionate to the United States during this next decade or so. The Americans themselves expect China to reach superpower status by 2025. Soon Washington will have to think twice before dispatching carrier groups to the South China Sea—as it did during the Taiwan crisis of 1996.

Over the foreseeable future, China Sea tensions are liable to continue, since Beijing’s deepest motives there are not so much territorial or economic as strategic and military. China must command the China Sea if it is to break through the forward chain of US bases and alliances and irrupt into the world ocean.

Already China is showing off its high-profile navy. In recent months, its warships have helped rescue an ice-bound Antarctic expedition and aided a US laboratory ship destroying Iran’s chemical weapons.

Last July, five Chinese warships for the first time transited the East China Sea, entered the Pacific and circumnavigated the Japanese archipelago. Shortly afterward, Beijing’s first carrier battle group showed the red flag around the South China Sea.

In reply, the region’s states—except for our poverty-stricken homeland—are stocking up on submarines, as the most cost-effective way of denying their maritime territories to a hostile armada.

Vietnam last month received the first of six Kilo-class subs it ordered from Russia. Thailand is training crews with its potential suppliers, Germany and South Korea. Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia all have operational fleets. Jakarta plans to have 12 subs by 2020.

More breathing space
As China’s power capabilities mature, we may expect Beijing to demand some loosening of the containing wall the US alliance has built around it. There will have to be some give on that issue, as the balance of strategic power shifts with time.

What are the East Asian states to do? Somehow our “middle powers” must begin to erect a regional power balance they can keep up by themselves. Not only must this arrangement accommodate China’s rising power. It must also protect the territorial integrity of the region’s states and maintain the regional stability that keeps their economies afloat.

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3 Comments

  1. There is no reason to doubt that America’s pivot to the Pacific will be construed by the Chinese as confining and constraining to their aggressive desire to grab almost all of the whole South china sea, as noted on their 9-line. It is no secret that China is now the second largest economy in the world, with its increasing military power to intimidate its neighbors and most probably confront America in the future. But do not count on America’s resolve to defend its allies. Yes, the US spent Trillions of dollars on 2 wars, because of surges of terrorism against us following 9/11. Now America will soon be free from those wars, unless some other country will try America’s resolve by attacking its allies, thinking that America is weakening. In about 2015 America’s dependence on the middle east oil will be almost nil. China will be dependent on the middle east energy in competition with all other countries in the world, this is one of the reasons for its aggressive intrusion into its neighbors territories, because it is perceived to have rich deposits of fossil fuel. One more thing, because of rapid rise of China’s economy, there is now severe pollution in the country’s water, soil and air, and to correct this problem will be very costly, and among others. America has more allies than China, which is a deterrence in itself. God bless.

  2. Dominador D. Canastra on

    Thank you for your excellent summary of the global and regional situation and issues that must be in the minds of both our President Aquino and America’s President Obama when they meet today.

    I hope Filipinos, including our president, never forget — and remind US presidents and other officials — that contrary to China’s claims, Filipinos and other Southeast Asians had the China Sea as their “maritime heartland” centuries before Chinese ships began to sail this huge ocean that China wants to control.

    Your article in February helped me realize this fact, Mr. Gatbonton.

    Dominador D. Canastra