Over at The Diplomat, Shannon Tiezzi worries that Obama’s trip to Asia this week “will increase perceptions in Beijing that the U.S. seeks to contain China’s rise.” It’s difficult to counter that perception because it happens to be correct.
Obama is visiting Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Three of those four countries have formal security agreements with Washington obligating the U.S. to go to war in their defense. All three have made explicit pleas that Washington reassure their security against China in the form of economic, military, and diplomatic support.
Malaysia does not have such a formal defense treaty, but one could be on the way. Like Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines, Malaysia has tense territorial and maritime disputes with China, most recently over “the James Shoal, just 80 kilometers (50 miles) off the coast of Malaysia’s Sarawak state.”
More than the territorial disputes, Malaysia represents a key geopolitical asset for hegemonic powers in the region. “The oil transported through the Malacca Strait from the Indian Ocean, en route to East Asia through the South China Sea, is triple the amount that passes through the Suez Canal and fifteen times the amount that transits the Panama Canal,” reports Robert Kaplan in his new book. “Roughly two thirds of South Korea’s energy supplies, nearly 60 percent of Japan’s and Taiwan’s energy supplies, and 80 percent of China’s crude oil imports come through the South China Sea.” Unsurprisingly, Obama is trying to make friends with Malaysia to maintain control of Asia Pacific’s sea lanes and keep China in a weaker position.
The U.S. has extensive military relationships with all four countries Obama is visiting. Almost 30,000 troops occupy South Korea and 40,000 occupy Japan. The U.S. has at least hundreds of troops in the Philippines, and may get more following new agreements expected in coming months. And hundreds of Malaysian troops are trained by the U.S. military every year.
Add to all this the dramatically increased U.S. naval presence in the Asia Pacific and the U.S.’s military relationships with Guam, Singapore, Taiwan, Australia, Indonesia and even Vietnam and you have a virtual military encirclement of China. Washington allies with all of China’s neighboring rivals, and somehow Beijing is expected to perceive this as something other than a hostile containment policy?
In Asia, U.S. policy is about maintaining hegemony – or at least preventing Chinese hegemony. As Geoff Dyer writes, “America has defined its vital interest as preventing any one power from dominating the other main regions of the world and turning them into a private sphere of influence.” In other words, the U.S. is on a mission to prevent China from doing exactly what America did in its own Western Hemisphere; namely, dominating its own sphere of regional influence.
Problematically for Washington, it is difficult to disguise this policy with the usual moralistic platitudes about democracy, capitalism, and freedom. China is no Soviet Union. They can hardly be accused of being some kind of global menace, since they mostly focus on growing their own economy. They aren’t democratic, but neither are half the countries the U.S. supports in opposition to China. This isn’t about making the world safe for democracy. It is about power.
This is clear to anyone who looks honestly at U.S. policy and, in particular, the “Asia Pivot.” And yes, we can be darn sure it is clear to China.