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US Foreign Policy Challenges in East Asia

Luis Durani

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Despite the media’s constant barrage of news pertaining to the Middle East, another region that is strategically imperative to the US is East Asia. The Far East is comprised of economic powerhouses such as China and Japan as well as the vibrant and growing economies of South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, and others. East Asia will be the global economic center of gravity in the coming decades.

While the economic forecast looks promising, the diplomatic and military situation appears tenuous at best. One of the bigger concerns for the next president of the US will be how they approach the growing rift in East Asia between China and her neighbors.

China

Currently, there doesn’t appear to be any major challenger to US hegemony in the world but many commentators refer to China as the most viable contender. The Chinese economy has been growing consistently each year for the past thirty years. On par with the economic growth, the Chinese defense budget has been increasing as well.

At the moment, China does not appear to wield any sort of ideological bent that it desires to propagate to other nations instead it is focusing on economic development. As such, it does not appear that China will become an ideological rival to the US on the global stage like the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, as China grows it will want to reassert itself in its backyard without any foreign meddling. This aspiration poses a long-term strategic threat to US security imperatives in the region. Aside from not being able to fulfill mutual defense treaties with allies such as Japan and Taiwan, the US can be left out of a region with the largest economic growth projected in the near future.

Aside from the military tensions in the region, the next president needs to impress upon China the role and responsibility of a rising power with respect to its international duties. One of the major issues that the US and other nations have encountered recently is the currency devaluation practice China employs in order to help stimulate exports at the expense of international trade. Another contentious problem that will need to be addressed is the protection of intellectual property. The Chinese have become notorious for stealing and imitating an array of intellectual property and rebranding it as her own.

Additionally, the Chinese will need to be confronted on matters of cyber infiltration. With the ever growing digitalization of the developed world, the vulnerability of the US to a cyber-attack continues to grow. The US has already sustained cyber-attacks allegedly by Chinese hackers that were working for the People’s Liberation Army. These types of attacks resulted in losses of American military and corporate intelligence.  

In the last couple of decades, the fashionable mantra in politics is to point out that the US is in decline while China is on the rise. Even though China may match American economic might in the coming decades, its military and technological gap is still wide. With the US on the path to becoming energy independent and a potential energy exporter, the supposed decline of America might be not so near. However in order to perpetuate the status quo, the next president has to work on maintaining a relationship with China that helps bring both nations closer together to resolve global issues while ensuring both nations are working on equitable terms.

South China Sea

Robert Kaplan, one of the foremost experts on the region, stated: “The South China Sea will be the 21 st Century’s defining battleground.” This large swathe of a sea is considered to be a great economic source of wealth as well as vital to geopolitical strategy.

With eight nations vying for control of the maritime features, tensions are starting to spill over into potential conflict. One of the most recent flashpoints has been the artificial island constructions by China, which were employed as airstrips. This allows China to create forward operating “islands” in the middle of nowhere and increase its Economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ).

The significance of the South China Sea is its potential for wealth as well as the strategic advantage it will bequest upon whoever controls it. Unlike other seas, the South China Sea has three factors that make it one of the most important seas to observe and promises a major conflict in the next few decades.

The South China Sea has a wealth of resources such as fishery stocks that comprise the livelihood and diet of so many in the region. It is believed to be one of the most lucrative fishing areas in the world. Securing a stable food sources will be a critical aspect for most countries in the region as their population continues to grow.

The discovery of large sources of oil and gas reserves under the seabed has only further enticed the surrounding littoral nations to intensify their claims for control of the sea. Chinese officials have estimated the oil reserves at one trillion US dollars. The potential for gas is even larger. If any nations manage to wrest control of the region, energy independence as well as a large revenue stream is guaranteed.

The control of the South China Sea is vital in projecting power to the Eurasian rimlands and eventually to the vast interiors. The sea also serves as a natural link between the Indian and Pacific Oceans only furthering its appeal. This natural passageway between the two oceans creates what is known as the Malacca Dilemma for Chinese strategists. The Malacca Dilemma refers to the dependence of China on the Strait of Malacca both economically and geopolitically. The Strait of Malacca is analogous in importance to the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf. One-third of all global trade transits through the strait as well as more than the overwhelming majority of raw materials and energy needs for the Chinese economy. Due to the increased traffic over the years, it has become a critical chokepoint.

China appears to be both the most economic and militarily preponderant force in the region. As China continues to grow, it will assert itself much more forcefully in the South China Sea in order to expel the US military from the region. If successful, the Chinese can disturb the freedom of navigation in the major sea lanes. This will threaten US economic interests. The next president will need to watch the sea carefully and continue to use the US navy as a buffer to Chinese ambitions in order to ensure freedom of navigation.

North Korea

North Korea or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) poses one of the most precarious predicaments in politics due to its nuclear arsenal, fickle dictator, unstable economy, and repressed population. The volatile situation makes all the regional states apprehensive and afraid of the ruinous potential that exists in being dragged into a conflict. The Chinese are reticent to defend the North Koreans yet more fearful of a united Korea with an American base on its border. Across the demilitarized zone, the US is weary of defending the South Koreans yet it cannot be perceived that it won’t fulfill its commitment to an ally. The best way out is a compromise between the two Koreas but there isn’t any desire on either side of the border to do so.

China is the main lever that can control North Korea’s actions to an extent. The next president will need to work and goad China to rein in the instability caused by Pyongyang. With an insecure dictator that possesses a nuclear arsenal, North Korea will be a country that keeps the next president awake at night.

Taiwan

Taiwan or the Republic of China continues to be a thorn in the Sino-American relationship. When Taipei announced its government, the US was not diplomatically apt to recognize the country. It was not until the Korean War that the US started a policy of containment in the Pacific Rim region with the protection of Taiwan as a priority.

As China grows economically and militarily, the Taiwan question will come more into play. Of all the perils associated with the South China Sea to security and peace, the disorder affecting the Taiwan Straits is by far the most threatening. The prospect of war is nowhere more promising than in this dispute. The US mutual defense agreement with Taiwan has helped secure it from a Chinese invasion for now. As the Chinese military continues to strengthen its capabilities, especially its anti-access/area denial capabilities, it will become more brazen in its actions towards Taiwan. The next US president will need to watch the precarious situation develop while maintaining its commitment to Taiwan. The US will not only need to play the role of a security guarantor to Taiwan but also a tension mollifier between the two rivals in order to maintain the peace.

Vietnam

Once an enemy of the US, Vietnam today represents one of the most pro-American countries in the region. With the rise of China, Vietnam’s status in the Pacific tug of war between the US and China has enhanced. Naturally, Vietnam is inclined towards the US because of its long and quarrelsome history with Beijing as well as China’s regional hegemonic aspiration. Although the US and Vietnam have not cozied up to the level of other regional states, the common interest of containing China’s regional goals is motivation enough for both countries to further develop their burgeoning relationship.  

China and Vietnam are currently engaged in disputes in and around the South China Sea mainly the Paracel Islands. While Vietnam claims the islands, China fully controls them. The islands have been the site of many clashes. When China placed an oil rig within Vietnam’s EEZ and justified it by arguing that the area was within the Chinese EEZ due to its “sovereignty” over the Paracel Islands, a face-off ensued. After a few clashes, the Chinese withdrew citing completion of their test but warned they reserved the right to return. While the US called the Chinese move rabble-rousing it did not impose any punitive measures. At the same time, the US continues to not sell any lethal weapons to Vietnam. With the US uninvolved and China’s growing naval strength, Vietnam is becoming somewhat intimidated and may eventually bend to the Chinese whim.

As the US begins to pivot more to Asia, the next US president needs to consider taking the relationship with Vietnam to the next level. With a deep water port and growing industrial manufacturing capabilities, Vietnam can play a great military and economic role in the US East Asia strategy.

Burma (Myanmar)

Burma has the potential to play the pivotal trump card in the US-China tango for East Asia. Due to the lack of media coverage, Burma’s importance to the US strategic imperative for the region is not stressed enough.

China has a long and comfortable relationship with the country since its independence in the middle of the 20th century. China is a vital military supplier and has many strategic military cooperation initiatives. In exchange, China is granted access to Burma’s naval ports, which grants it an entrance to the Indian Ocean bypassing the Malacca Strait. China hopes to use the nation as a corridor to the Indian Ocean and reduce its reliance on the South China Sea. The country also serves as a pivot point for China to observe Indian military movements in the region. However, this friendly relationship between the two nations has hit a few bumps in the last couple of years. Burma has beckoned a change in its foreign policy by engaging other regional players and reducing its dependence on China.

In recent years, the relations between the US and Burma has warmed up with the exchange of ambassadors as well as the easing of sanctions against the country. Despite human rights abuses by the Burmese government against the Rohingya minority, economic exchanges with the US are still going forward. The US is supporting the democratic transition in Burma. As Burma’s neighbor to the north becomes stronger and richer, a counterweight is needed to help ensure Burma’s interest and regional stability is maintained. The next president of the US will have many countries to look at in this part of the world but Burma will play a fundamental role in determining if Chinese ambitions are checked for the region. A balance is needed between encouraging the transition to democracy and condemning their actions towards the minority population. It will be a fine line for the next president to tread on.

Luis Durani is currently employed in the oil and gas industry. He previously worked in the nuclear energy industry. He has a M.A. in international affairs with a focus on Chinese foreign policy and the South China Sea, MBA, M.S. in nuclear engineering, B.S. in mechanical engineering and B.A. in political science. He is also author of "Afghanistan: It’s No Nebraska – How to do Deal with a Tribal State" and "China and the South China Sea: The Emergence of the Huaqing Doctrine." Follow him for other articles on Instagram: @Luis_Durani

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Americas

Trump: The Symbol of America’s Isolation in the World

Mohammad Ghaderi

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The president of the United States, who came to power in 2016 with the slogan of “Reviving Washington’s Power”, has become the messenger of failure and defeat of his country in the West Asian region and in the international system. The U.S. numerous military and political defeats in countries such as Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon were so outstanding that there’s no way Trump can brag about his achievements in the region.

On the other hand, many Democrats in the United States, and even the traditional Republicans, have been criticizing the President’s costly and barren foreign policy in West Asia. In such a situation, Trump attempts to attribute this failure to the country’s previous administrations and condemn them over what is happening in today’s world, especially in the West Asian region, and he blames Obama for Washington’s constant and extensive failures in this area.

Besides, Trump’s other projections about the hard conditions of the U.S. in West Asia are noteworthy. In his recent remarks, Donald Trump said that if he wasn’t at top of the U.S. political and executive equations, Iran would capture the Middle East (West Asia)! This is while Islamic Republic of Iran created stability in the West Asian region, and besides, has stood against the long-term, medium-term, and short-term and destructive goals of the United States and its allies in the region.

Trump’s strategic weakness in the West Asia is an important issue which can’t be easily overlooked. Of course this strategic weakness did exist during Obama’s presidency, but the truth is that it reached its peak during Trump’s presidency. And in the future, this weakness will bring severe blows to the United States.

The fact is that the strategic calculations of the United States in the West Asia region have all failed. And many of the pre-assumptions that Washington called them “strategic propositions”, have never turned into reality for some reasons, including the vigilance of the Resistance movement in the region. This is the reason why America is so confused in confronting the equations of West Asia.

Under such circumstances, the only way before the President of the United States is to leave the region and confess to his defeat; an issue that many American analysts and strategists have noted. It shouldn’t be forgotten that in spite of his campaign slogans for stopping the military intervention in the region, the current president of the United States has intensified conflicts and created constant security crises in West Asia.

The direct, perfect, and comprehensive support of Donald Trump for takfiri terrorists reflects this fact. Trump started his support for ISIL since the beginning of his presence at the White House in early 2017, and he stood for the terrorists until the fall of ISIL in Syria. Even now, Trump is attempting to revive terrorist and takfiri groups in Iraq and Syria.

Despite passing half of his presidency, Trump has claimed that the defeat in Yemen, Syria and Iraq was Obama’s legacy. There is no doubt that Obama and his two secretaries of state, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, played a major role in creating terrorist and takfiri groups (especially ISIL), and committed bloodshed in Syria and Iraq.

There is also little ambiguity in the strategic, operational and even tactical defeat of the Obama administration in the battlefields of Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. However, Trump can’t deny his share in this defeat, and pretend as if he’s the messenger of the victory of the United States in these scenes! The fact is that Trump completed the military and political defeats of the United States in the West Asia region. Today, the United States is defeated in the battlefield, and can well see that its pieces had failed in these wars.

On the other hand, the White House has lost the political arena of the region. The failure of the United States in the Lebanese and Iraqi elections, on the one hand, and the popular support for the resistance groups in Yemen and Syria, has left Trump and his companions disappointed in the region. In such a situation, attributing the recent and ongoing defeats of the United States to the Obama administration is completely expectable, and at the same time, unacceptable!

Finally, we can see that just like Obama, George W Bush, Clinton, Bush, Reagan and Carter, Trump is stuck in this strategic miscalculation in the West Asian region. Undoubtedly, in his last days in power, Trump will also understand that there’s no way he can overcome this strategic weakness through Saudi and Emirati petrodollars.

However, it seems that the scope of Trump’s defeat in West Asia would be wider than the previous presidents of the United States. Undoubtedly, in the near future, Trump, John Bolton, Mike Pompeo and Nikki Haley will become the symbols of failure in the US foreign policy, especially in the West Asia. In other words, the president of the United States and his companions at the White House will have to admit to defeat in the West Asian region at a great expense, and this is exactly what frightens the American authorities.

first published in our partner Tehran Times

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Weather and White House Turmoil as Elections Loom

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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Hurricane Michael wreaked havoc as it traversed the Florida panhandle.  The first Category 5 hurricane to hit the area since 1881 when records began, its 155 mph winds (only 5 mph short of Category 6) felled massive trees, blew away houses, collapsed buildings and left devastation in its wake.  Relatively fast moving at 14 mph, it was soon gone continuing as a Category 3 into neighboring Georgia and then further up its northeasterly path.  It seemed to signify a stamp of approval for the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on holding earth to a 1.5 degree Celsius warming issued a couple of days earlier.  We are at one degree now so storms can only be expected to get worse.

In northeastern Turkey, a 300-year old stone bridge disappeared overnight.  Villagers convinced it had been stolen called in the police.  Further investigation concluded it had been washed away by a flash flood caused by a sudden summer thunderstorm further upstream — clearly far more intense than in the previous three centuries.

Ever more powerful hurricanes, monsoons and forest fires point to a proliferation of extreme weather events that experts relate to global warming.  Yet President Donald Trump and his administration remain obdurate in climate change denial.

Thins are certainly warming up in the White House.  Nikki Haley announced her resignation in an amicable meeting with the president.  A staunch defender of many of Mr. Trump’s most egregious foreign policy changes, the UN Representative will be leaving at the end of the year to pursue opportunities in the private sector.  So said the announcement.  An astute and ambitious politician she has probably reassessed the costs versus benefits of remaining in a Trump administration.  Some tout her as a future presidential candidate.  Should she be successful she will be the first woman president, who also happens to be of Indian and Sikh ancestry.

The rap singer Kanye West visited the president in the Oval office.  A ten-minute rant/rap praising him was followed by a hug for which Mr. West ran round the wide desk that had been seemingly cleared of all paraphernalia for the performance.  He is one of the eight percent of blacks voting Republican.  Sporting the Trump trademark, Make-America-Great-Again red hat, he claimed it made him Superman, his favorite superhero.  And some suggested it was all further proof the place had gone insane.

A little over three weeks remain to the U.S. midterm elections on November 6th.  Their proximity is evidenced not by rallies or debates rather by the barrage of negative TV ads blasting opponents with accusations of shenanigans almost unworthy of a felon.  A couple of months of this and you lose any enthusiasm for voting.  Perhaps it is one reason why nearly half the electorate stays home.  Given such a backdrop, the furor over ‘Russian meddling’ in elections appears to be a trifle misplaced.  Others call the whole business a ‘witch hunt’ and state flatly the U.S. does the same.

The old idiom, ‘put your own house in order’ is particularly apt when we realize the beginning of this affair  was a Democratic National Committee email leak showing ‘the party’s leadership had worked to sabotage Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign’.  It resulted in the resignation of DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

Always fair, aboveboard elections?  Not bloody likely, as the British would say.  Given the rewards, it’s against human nature.

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The hot November for Trump is arriving

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Political turmoil in the United States has become extremely unpredictable. The turn of events became worse with an op-ed at the New York Times on September 5. Former White House strategist Steve Bannon described it as a coup against Donald Trump.

The reality is that the president faces domestic problems in his second year in office. This has rarely happened in the US political history. The issue is of great importance with regard to the approaching mid-term congressional elections in November. Republicans have the majority in the House of Representatives and the Senate, but they feel the risk of losing the majority in both houses due to Trump’s record.

Indeed, a feeling has emerged among some American politicians that their country is heading in the wrong direction because of Trump’s policies. Even former President Barack Obama has joined the election campaigns by breaking his promise not to get involved in political affairs.

The situation is not also good for Trump internationally. Disagreement with the European Union – a traditional ally of the United States – over trade and political issues, trade war with China, increasing tension with Russia, exit from international treaties such as the Paris climate agreement and the 2015 multilateral nuclear agreement Iran, have all made Trump to look dangerous in the eyes of the world. All these issues have made the situation unfavorable for Trump and his government at home and abroad.

But what is the answer of the president of the United States to these criticisms? The answer to this question is one word: economy. However, Trump is proud of his economic record.

According to statistics, the Labor Department published on September 8, US employment growth in August has beat market expectations, the non-farm payrolls increased by 201,000 from the previous month. Analysts were expecting growth of about 195,000.

The unemployment rate for August remained low at 3.9 percent. The average hourly wage rose 2.9 percent from the year before. That’s the highest level since June 2009. The latest figures are increasing speculation that the Federal Reserve will raise its key interest rate this month. The US economy expanded 4.2 percent in the April-to-June quarter, and is expected to grow more than 3 percent in this quarter.

But the economy cannot keep the president of the United States from the edge of criticism. Trump is in a difficult situation and worried about the result of the election and possible control of Congress by Democrats.

Issues such as the confessions of Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen on bribing women for having affairs with Trump and Russia’s possible involvement in the 2016 presidential election could possibly lead to his impeachment and his dismissal from power.

The US constitution says that the impeachment of the president should be endorsed by representatives from both chambers of Congress – the House of Representatives and the Senate. Democrats now have 49 seats in the 100-member Senate, and if they get 51 seats in the November election, they will still need at least 15 Republican senators to impeach Trump.

Still, if Democrats win the November election, even if this victory does not lead to Trump’s impeachment, it can put further pressure on him and cripple his government. According to a CNN poll, decrease in Trump’s popularity even among his supporters shows that the days following the November election will be hard times for Trump and his government.

First published in our partner MNA

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