Obama’s Asia Pivot Trip: What It Portends for India
by Ramtanu Maitra on 21 May 2014 0 Comment

In the midst of the unrelenting violence that has engulfed a number of major Arab nations and the West-instigated violent actions by Ukrainian fascists now under pressure from Russia, US President Barack Obama undertook a week-long (April 23-29) trip to the Far East and Southeast Asia, visiting Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines. His aim was to transfuse the lifeless “Pivot to Asia” policy designed to “rebalance” US foreign policy toward the Asia-Pacific region.


As anticipated by Asia Pivot skeptics, the response the American president received to his security and economic overtures was tepid and, as a result, the outcome of his trip was minimal. Even before Obama headed home, it was apparent that the effort to readjust a Middle East-centric US foreign policy to make it more Asia Pacific-oriented is non-starter. It has found few takers among Asian leaders. 


It is important that India - one of the three most powerful nations in Asia, with no identified enemy in the region and about to usher in a new administration - evaluate this failed trip and draw the appropriate lessons for the formulation of its own foreign policy in the coming years.


Asia’s Suspicions


The reasons why Asians are reluctant to embrace President Obama’s “Asia Pivot” are straightforward, and rooted in recent history. Since 2001, after the Saudi-funded al-Qaeda terrorists carried out a bone-chilling attack on America’s symbols of power on 9/11, two successive American presidents have lashed out with raw power at the wrong enemies again and again.


It began with Afghanistan in late-2001. That invasion, originally designed to remove the Taliban, which it did, and eliminate al-Qaeda, which it didn’t, later degenerated into an endless bloodletting mission using military instruments such as counterterrorism and counterinsurgency. In the final analysis, the outcome of that invasion was an explosion of opium/heroin within Afghanistan and the creation of millions of heroin addicts around the world, while strengthening many terrorist groups and fattening the cash boxes of global banks. Today, more than a decade later, Afghanistan remains arguably as dangerous a country as it was in 2001.


The Afghanistan invasion was followed by the unprovoked invasion of Iraq in 2003. This one was triggered by a Tony Blair-instigated false campaign, loudly backed by the pro-Israeli lobby within the United States, which said that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. The drumbeat that Saddam was preparing to annihilate the world with his nukes led to a no-holds-barred invasion of Iraq.


Saddam Hussein, the West’s much-despised dictator, was not only removed; he was hanged, and the rest is very unpleasant history. The invasion led to the complete destruction of Iraq’s military, its law and order structures, and opened up of a floodgate through which the Sunni terrorists, funded by Washington’s close Gulf allies such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, moved into Iraq to pick on the devastated body of what is considered to be one of the cradles of Islamic civilization. 


Then came President Obama, who followed up with the invasion of Libya, a Maghreb nation. Again, two major former colonial powers, Britain and France, joined hands with imperial United States. Now, these three invaded countries - Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya - have become not only highly unstable but have been turned into the operating grounds of violent Sunni terrorists waving the Islamist Jihad flag.


The despicable adventure that converted Libya from a stable nation to another terrorist-manufacturing center did not make President Obama, British PM David Cameron or French President Francoise Hollande even blink. They geared up right away to plunge into yet another catastrophic adventure: Syria. Using funds and arms provided by the West’s close friends in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait, and the terrorists created in Libya and carted out to Syria with the help of the NATO member-nation, Turkey, the imperial-trio set out to change the regime in Damascus. While the Saudis, Kuwaitis and Qataris passed on the oil and gas-generated cash for the purchase of arms that would kill thousands, Obama, Cameron and Hollande issued statements from the rooftops trying to explain why Syria must go through an unacceptable misery and drown itself in a bloodbath.


To leaders in distant Southeast Asia, it looks like the Western powers have become dangerous and fundamentally untrustworthy. Any doubter only had to note that before embarking on his trip, President Obama had landed the United States in yet another soup, which has already scalded the Ukrainians and made Central Asia restless. In Ukraine the modus operandi used by the United States and the halting and spineless European leaders was virtually the same as that applied in Syria. Lacking the significant presence of Islamist Jihadi terrorists in Ukraine, the trans-Atlantic alliance brought to the fore anti-Russia Nazis, anti-Semitic zealots and downright criminals with the sole intent to antagonize Russia next door. Controlled by a galaxy of extremely corrupt individuals, who are deeply despised by their own population, Ukraine is now going through a process that could spill a lot of blood and turn the country into a laboratory where yet another nest of terrorists will incubate.


These “fake pearls” of Obama’s foreign policy have no doubt had something to do with the president’s failure to generate any excitement in Asia. Asians have noticed Obama has swallowed hook, line and sinker the hated policies of the 19th century colonial powers that often used raw power under one pretext or another as their foreign policy instrument. Though the United States, under Obama, has neither the economic means nor the necessary muscle to do what colonial Britain, France and the Netherlands did in the 18th and 19th century to spread their rule in highly fragmented and unsuspecting Asian nations. Yet, the Obama administration and its trans-Atlantic partners have made clear that their zeal to use raw power against Asian, or any other, nations to settle differences as they wish remains undiminished.


The TPP Card Flopped


The latest “rebalancing” trip to the Far East took Obama to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines. His mission included advancing US trade interests through promotion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), reassuring the allies that the United States would provide support to these nations in any serious confrontation with China and rebutting critics who dismissed his “pivot to Asia” strategy as a non-starter. 


The American president made the TPP, not military alliance, the centerpiece of his trip. Of course, assuring Asian “friends” about security without being able to make a case that China is a threat to Southeast Asia wouldn’t do. In addition, Obama is still trying to sell the Asia pivot to the Americans. Obama’s domestic audience in the United States is most concerned about trade and the economy. As Don Emmerson, a political scientist at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University put it in a recent interview, “If the pivot is to serve American interests as well as Asian ones, it should be about goods and services, not just guns and planes” (“Obama’s Asia Trip Yields Better Military Ties but No Trade Concessions,” McClatchy Foreign Staff, Stuart Leavenworth, April 28).


Moreover, despite the enormous growth of the Asian economies and the rise of China as a world power, Americans remain decidedly Euro-centric. As American analyst Mark Perry says, there’s “the West” and then there’s “the rest.” This view is especially entrenched in the US military. While senior military officers, including Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have taken a number of high-profile trips to Asia and pledged their support for Obama’s Asia pivot, most senior military officers have spent their careers planning and training for a confrontation with the Soviet Union - in Europe - or against Iran, in the Middle East. And when they weren’t doing that they were fighting wars in the Middle East (Operations Desert Storm in 1991 and Iraqi Freedom in 2003) or in Southwest Europe, during the break-up of the former Yugoslavia in 1999. (“Is Obama’s Asia Pivot More Than Talk?” The Daily Beast, Mark Perry, April 26).


Still, Obama’s un-named target was and is China, both military and economic. China accounts for about 10 percent of global economic activity, and about 8 percent of global military spending. While the United States is still the most powerful nation, the gap between China and the United States - whether in terms of wealth, military spending or political influence - has shrunken considerably over the last 30 years. This is the fact that is going to shape much of the political activity along Asia’s Pacific coast for the next decade, as a Canadian analyst has pointed out (“China’s economic and military growth,” Testimony to the Canadian Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Simon Palamar, May 23, 2013).


During the recent tour, Obama sought trade concessions from both Japan and Malaysia, but that did not materialize. While all four host nations were willing to get military protection in case China becomes a hostile power in the region, neither Japan nor Malaysia responded to Obama’s TPP card. In fact, the American president couldn’t get even an oral agreement from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for Japan to lower tariffs against certain US imports, a key step in making the trade pact a reality.


As the London Economist editorialized: “The TPP however remains deeply unpopular with voters, politicians and vested interests in many other parts of Asia. Consequently neither the Japanese nor the Malaysian governments were prepared to give the American president any firm commitments on the subject (other than to do yet more talking about it). Mr. Obama must have been disappointed, not that he said so. Indeed his failure to win ‘fast-track’ approval from the American Congress to enable the administration to negotiate a TPP agreement that could not then be unpicked line-by-line has left him in a weak position to bully any of the other members” (“Barack Obama’s Asian tour: So long, and thanks for all the naval bases,: The Economist, April 28).


The Economist also pointed to Obama’s further difficulties with Japan. “Despite hours of frantic negotiations over the TPP, no agreement was reached. Mr. Obama had been forceful in telling Mr. Abe that he needs to confront his domestic lobby groups on trade, in particular the farmers… American officials had pressed hard to secure a breakthrough for the TPP. Nonetheless Mr. Abe and his negotiators refused to give way on five so-called ‘sacred areas’ of agriculture, including beef and rice. America, for its part, wants to maintain high tariffs on light trucks. No further agreement is likely until after the American mid-term elections in November,” the Economist concluded.


In Malaysia, where he was the first US president to visit in 48 years, Obama noticed a number of “NO TPPA signs” - opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement - on his way to the Town Hall meeting in Kuala Lumpur. Those posters, however few in numbers, were an accurate reflection of the Malaysian government’s stance. On April 27, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak suggested that his country remains far from ready to sign a US-led trade pact due to domestic “sensitivities.” He agreed to upgrade the two countries’ ties to a “comprehensive partnership,” mirroring a step that Malaysia took with China last year when President Xi Jinping made a state visit. “We are working around the sensitivities and challenges which I alluded to in my discussions with President Obama,” Najib told a joint news conference with the US leader in the administrative capital of Putrajaya.


What’s it to India?


The new Indian government that will come to power in a short while should note with some satisfaction that Obama did not mention India even once during his week-long trip. India must recognize that any which way one slices it, Washington’s objective with an “Asia Pivot” is to strengthen its forces to balance the rising power of China.


The principal goal of the United States would seem to be to prevent most of Asia and parts of Africa from falling under Chinese hegemony, by building a ring of fences around China through an array of bilateral alliances and partnerships with countries that could be pressured to express openly their worries about China’s rapid growth. And, thus, bring about a change in the power balance of the region.


While there is no evidence that the Chinese hegemony plan at the heart of Washington’s policy is real, there is plenty of evidence that Obama is using it to rally domestic backing in the United States. And it is arguable whether Washington is using the specter of a rising and dangerous China as a pretext to spread its own hegemony among the Southeast and Far East Asian nations. By treating China as a threat to the United States alone, Washington will not be able to garner much support from Asia.


How does India fit into all this? How Washington sees it is reflected in the Pentagon’s strategic guidance paper of 2012, which called for “investing in a long-term strategic partnership with India to support its ability to serve as a regional economic anchor and provider of security in the broader Indian Ocean region.” Both President Obama, during his visit to India in November 2010, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, during her trip in 2012, had called on New Delhi to play a more active strategic role in East Asia.


According to one American analyst, India needs to modernize its armed forces to keep up with Beijing’s growing military power, which means moving away from its reliance on Russian hardware and looking toward Europe and the United States (“Returning to the Land or Turning Toward the Sea? India’s Role in America’s Pivot,” Evan Braden Montgomery, The Diplomat, April 28, 2013). It is ostensibly financially beneficial and also strategically necessary for Washington to have the other rising power on its side to be able to preserve its position in the Asia-Pacific region as China’s strength continues to grow. Also beneficial for Washington is to see that China and India do not get too close to each other as far as geostrategic views are concerned.


“Clearly, fuelling India-China tensions is integral to the US containment strategy towards China, as it would compel Delhi to coordinate its China policy with Washington’s and would give a sense of urgency to the strengthening of military-to-military cooperation and ‘inter-operability’ between the Indian and US armed forces,” Montgomery observes bluntly. “From the US perspective, understandably enough, the normalization of India-China relations threatens to weaken or debilitate its entire ‘rebalancing’ strategy in Asia. The specter that haunts the ‘New American Century’ is the emergence of an Asian concord or unity as regards the issues of stability, security and development among the regional states of which China and India are indeed two crucially important protagonists.”


In 2010, then-US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said: “India can be a net provider of security in the Indian Ocean and beyond.” For example, with a bigger and better navy, India surely could help patrol vital sea lanes, deter or counter smuggling operations, combat piracy, provide humanitarian assistance far from home and respond quickly when natural disasters strike. All of this could help relieve some of the “burdens” shouldered by the US Navy, which is juggling its day-to-day role as a global security provider and first responder with the longer-term challenge of a shifting military balance in the Western Pacific.


However, there is a problem. India has neither the financial capability to maintain a large navy, nor could it develop such a capability in the foreseeable future. And, most importantly, India is not yet a maritime power: it is a land power. Assuming that the underlying goal of closer US-India ties is to help maintain the balance of power with China across Asia, a larger Indian navy is likely to have only a marginal long-term impact. Surely enough, New Delhi is building and buying new ships and submarines, and seems determined to bolster its naval capabilities. But the major military challenges it faces come from on shore, and the Indian Army continues to be the nation’s dominant military service in terms of size, influence and budget share.


In addition, New Delhi has no reason in terms of national interest to dance to the West’s tune. India has a lot to gain by becoming a major power that will interact with all and sundry nations in Asia for its own and their mutual benefit. In the coming decades, the Eurasian landmass will become the center of world’s economic growth, and India will have a major role to optimize that growth and to ensure the security of the region by bringing together all major Asian powers so that Asia, too, can have a peaceful rise. 


That means New Delhi must steadfastly turn its back on the old machinations by the old and weakened colonial powers. 

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