By Syed Muhammad Ali – The forgetful human nature is both a vice and a virtue. It helps us recover from traumas but sometimes it also makes us forget history. The rise of China is a contemporary reality but how the US is reacting to it reflects its desire to recover from the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan and caution not to get entangled in Syria or Ukraine directly. However, its Asian Pivot strategy and the regional ambitions of its allies indicate that the US has forgotten the costly lessons of the deadliest war in human history, World War II.
The evolving US grand strategy to sustain its dominance over the transforming international system reveals three core objectives. First, enhancing its strategic, conventional, diplomatic and economic leverages over Asia-Pacific by expanding its broad-based ties with Japan, India, Australia and South Korea. The aim is to geopolitically and geo-strategically encircle, isolate and contain Chinese rise, within the region.
Secondly, to keep Europe divided and security-dependent over the US by maintaining the Atlantic-based alliance system and to restrict growing Russian economic, energy and political influence there. Thirdly, to gradually disentangle itself from long-term, direct and large US military engagements within the complex South Asia and turbulent Middle East.
These three objectives, unlike his Republican predecessor, reveal Obama administration’s desire to be known in history for its reluctance to initiate major wars and for viewing military force as not the first or the most efficient instrument of US foreign policy. Like Nixon, thanks to his Neo-Con, Republican or Foggy Bottom critics, Obama may not go down in history as the most popular or successful US President. Nixon concluded Vietnam War, pursued arms control with Soviet Union and did not start a new major war during his tenure. Similarly, Obama rose to power by condemning Iraq War, proposed Nuclear Zero, decided to end Afghan War and despite Russian provocations, resisted the temptation to attack Syria or get entangled in Ukraine. It is possible that informed and unbiased historians may view him as a cautious statesman, who revised and restrained US foreign, nuclear and defence policies. In great power politics, despite retreat from Vietnam, Nixon’s greatest victory, as Sun Tzu suggested, was the successful division of the Communist block without fighting, by isolating Soviet Union from China.
However, what noble-laureate Obama is overlooking while militarily building up Japan and India against China, are valuable lessons of the world’s largest, most destructive naval warfare in history. The Pacific War caused over 6 million military casualties, decolonized East Asia and got Japan nuked twice. All this was not possible without US contributions.
For two centuries, Japan was an internationally isolated archipelago but on July 8, 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry of US Navy steamed into Yokohama bay with four USwarships—the <Mississippi, Plymouth, Saratoga, and Susquehanna. Projecting the destructive firepower of US Navy, the US Commodore blackmailed the island nation of Japan into opening trade with the West. Next year, Perry returned, this time with seven warships and demanded that Japan must establish formal relations with the US, leading to the Convention of Kanagawa signed on March 31, 1854. Within five years, Japan was coerced into signing similar treaties with other Western powers. These treaties were unequal and forced upon Japan through gunboat diplomacy, and were interpreted by the Japanese for a long time as an evidence of western imperialism of the Asian continent. These treaties gave the western nations unequivocal control of import tariffs and the right of extraterritoriality to all western visitors. These humiliating treaties remained etched in Japanese national psyche and perception towards the West until Japan economically strengthened itself with the US and European help, armed itself sufficiently and fatefully decided to change the regional geopolitical order. The first half of the 20th century saw Tokyo colonize Korea and Taiwan, occupy China and Manchuria, defy the League of Nations, invade Thailand, Singapore, Malaya, Hong Kong and eventually attack the US at Pearl harbor in 1941.
The Japanese surrender, its forced disarmament after the World War II and the subsequent Treaty of San Francisco in 1951 ensured Tokyo remained peaceful. However, over the past six decades, successive Japanese governments repeatedly reinterpreted the Article 9 of the ‘peaceful’ Japanese constitution, not merely to suit changing US regional security interests but also to feed their own geo-political and geo-strategic ambitions. Japan, let us make no mistake, despite its soft international image, possesses the most advanced naval, air and land forces in Asia, whose technological prowess can be matched only by the US itself. And the massive Asia-Pacific defence build-up cannot entirely to be blamed on Beijing. In 2013, at $318 billion, the total defence spending of East Asia was $27 billion dollars more than the total defence spendings by the US Western European NATO allies. Interestingly, the combined defence expenditure of the US Asia-Pacific allies such as Japan, India, South Korea and Australia is greater than the total Chinese defence spending.
Like Japan, India also cannot be blamed for modesty. From the days of the British Raj, India saw itself as a power, denied of its rightful place at the world stage by the exploitative western imperialism. The way a soft-faced Gandhi and cunning Nehru ran Indian independence movement, how India coerced, attacked and divided its smaller neighbors after independence and how ‘Indira Doctrine’ unfolded, provide compelling evidences of the global Indian ambitions and its lofty self-image in international politics.
During 1947-1974, primarily citing moral reasons, India was staunchly against western powers for developing and possessing nuclear weapons, stayed out of NPT and championed the Non-Aligned Movement. However, it used the nuclear technology, supplied by western states for peaceful purposes, for its first nuclear weapon test in 1974, ironically named ‘Smiling Buddha’. This belligerent violation of Indian non-proliferation obligations led to the formation of London Suppliers Group, which subsequently became the Nuclear Suppliers Group, to prevent similar proliferation of nuclear technology.
Four decades later, ironically, not only the US but also Russia, Australia, South Korea and the only victim of nuclear attacks in history, Japan, are vigorously competing to supply nuclear technology and material to India. This only proves that ambitious states overlook their historical experiences at their own peril. Moreover, their non-proliferation claims and international commitments are inferior to their economic interests and strategic ambitions.
With the possible exception of NATO, whether its SEATO, CENTO, Maliki or Karzai regimes, none of the political structures and leadership Washington helped create both domestically and regionally, seem sustainable in the long run. The simple reason is that most of the weaker allies and the domestic and regional political structures, which sustained them, were artificial and devoid of deep local or regional roots, acceptability and constituencies. Such regional structures, weaker US allies and their leaders mostly survived on US diplomatic, economic, political and military support. RCD, SEATO, CENTO, Shah of Iran and Karzai regimes fall in this category. Such structures and leadership were also viewed as culturally alien by local stakeholders, suspiciously by domestic opposition and regional states and promoted insecurity instead of stability in the region. Conversely, if the US allies were themselves powerful like Israel or Iraq, they used US assistance and diplomatic support to strengthen, legitimize and pursue their own regional ambitions, which sometimes also undermined US interests and regional security. Israeli territorial expansion over Syrian, Lebanese territories and Iraqi invasion of Iran and Kuwait fall in this category. Propping up Japan and India is likely to do the same.
The US ‘Asian Pivot’ strategy will divide ASEAN into pro-US and Pro-China blocks, foster regional insecurities, hamper regional economic integration and fiscal growth and destabilize the region. The US must choose its allies and enemies wisely and not forget the costly lessons of the wars it has fought in Asia during the last two centuries. None of the allies it propped up, served US interests for long and eventually became a victim of either over-dependence on the US or their own over-ambition. Both situations did not help long-term US regional interests. Both Japan and India seek US diplomatic, military and strategic support to help them realize their historical regional ambitions they have harbored for decades, which are also not in sync with regional security or US interests.
Like Nixon, Obama should pursue arms control with China, encourage a co-operative security architecture for Asia-Pacific, based on constructive broad-based engagement with China, not against it and not accelerate arms race by extensively arming Japan and India. Instead of restraining China, US attempts to isolate or encircle China, will provoke Beijing more and could destabilize South China Sea, Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean. These developments are not in US own long-term interests. Obama has correctly identified that the rise and fall of great powers should concern US foreign policy more than pursuing terrorism, which is a consequence of the former. Mostly, it is not ideology but weak state institutions, bad governance and unpopular leadership, sustained with the support of external powers, which creates space for outfits like Al-Qaeda and Taliban in the developing world. US should help these countries address these causes rather than waste its resources, energies and time in temporarily but frequently fighting their consequences.
Like Nixon, Obama should reach out to China not with fear but hope as the resulting net economic, political and diplomatic gains for the US and its allies will be far more than the sum cost of another Pacific conflict, which the US and its allies can ill-afford. More importantly, if it is in the interest of the US to maintain the quality of life and freedom of thought of its citizens, then aircraft and ships from all over the world carrying US products, Asian immigrants and raw material, Chinese goods, Arab oil and Japanese gadgets must travel un-interrupted between the US airports and harbors and across Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean. Antagonizing and isolating China and over-arming Japan and India will not help achieve that. Let the valuable and costly lessons of the last 160 years of US-Asian conflict guide us and make ‘Asian century’ the century of co-operation between the East and the West, instead of conflict. This will also restore US international stature after the debacles of Iraq and Afghanistan and make its security and foreign policies compatible with its noble constitution and help the world accept it not merely fear it.