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US Foreign Policy Challenges in East Asia

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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

Americas

Hardened US and Iranian positions question efficacy of parties’ negotiating tactics

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The United States and Iran seem to be hardening their positions in advance of a resumption of negotiations to revive a 2015 international nuclear agreement once Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi takes office in early August.

Concern among supporters of the agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program which former US President Donald J. Trump abandoned in 2018 may be premature but do raise questions about the efficacy of the negotiating tactics of both parties.

These tactics include the Biden administration’s framing of the negotiations exclusively in terms of the concerns of the West and its Middle Eastern allies rather than also as they relate to Iranian fears, a failure by both the United States and Iran to acknowledge that lifting sanctions is a complex process that needs to be taken into account in negotiations, and an Iranian refusal to clarify on what terms the Islamic republic may be willing to discuss non-nuclear issues once the nuclear agreement has been revived.

The differences in the negotiations between the United States and Iran are likely to be accentuated if and when the talks resume, particularly concerning the mechanics of lifting sanctions.

“The challenges facing the JCPOA negotiations are a really important example of how a failed experience of sanctions relief, as we had in Iran between the Obama and Trump admins, can cast a shadow over diplomacy for years to come, making it harder to secure US interests,” said Iran analyst Esfandyar Batmanghelidj referring to the nuclear accord, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, by its initials.

The Biden administration may be heeding Mr. Batmangheldij’s notion that crafting sanctions needs to take into account the fact that lifting them can be as difficult as imposing them as it considers more targeted additional punitive measures against Iran. Those measures would aim to hamper Iran’s evolving capabilities for precision strikes using drones and guided missiles by focusing on the providers of parts for those weapon systems, particularly engines and microelectronics.

To be sure, there is no discernable appetite in either Washington or Tehran to adjust negotiation tactics and amend their underlying assumptions. It would constitute a gargantuan, if not impossible challenge given the political environment in both capitals. That was reflected in recent days in Iranian and US statements.

Iranian Spiritual Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei suggested that agreement on the revival of the nuclear accord was stumbling over a US demand that it goes beyond the terms of the original accord by linking it to an Iranian willingness to discuss its ballistic missiles program and support for Arab proxies.

In a speech to the cabinet of outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, he asserted that the West “will try to hit us everywhere they can and if they don’t hit us in some place, it’s because they can’t… On paper and in their promises, they say they’ll remove sanctions. But they haven’t lifted them and won’t lift them. They impose conditions…to say in future Iran violated the agreement and there is no agreement” if Iran refuses to discuss regional issues or ballistic missiles.

Iranian officials insist that nothing can be discussed at this stage but a return by both countries to the nuclear accord as is. Officials, distrustful of US intentions, have hinted that an unconditional and verified return to the status quo ante may help open the door to talks on missiles and proxies provided this would involve not only Iranian actions and programs but also those of America’s allies.

Mr. Khamenei’s remarks seemed to bolster suggestions that once in office Mr. Raisi would seek to turn the table on the Biden administration by insisting on stricter verification and US implementation of its part of a revived agreement.

To achieve this, Iran is expected to demand the lifting of all rather than some sanctions imposed or extended by the Trump administration; verification of the lifting;  guarantees that the lifting of sanctions is irreversible, possibly by making any future American withdrawal from the deal contingent on approval by the United Nations Security Council; and iron-clad provisions to ensure that obstacles to Iranian trade are removed, including the country’s unfettered access to the international financial system and the country’s overseas accounts.

Mr. Khamenei’s remarks and Mr. Raisi’s anticipated harder line was echoed in warnings by US officials that the ascendancy of the new president would not get Iran a better deal. The officials cautioned further that there could be a point soon at which it would no longer be worth returning to because Iran’s nuclear program would have advanced to the point where the limitations imposed by the agreement wouldn’t produce the intended minimum one year ‘breakout time’ to produce enough enriched uranium for a bomb.

“We are committed to diplomacy, but this process cannot go on indefinitely. At some point, the gains achieved by the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) cannot be fully recovered by a return to the JCPOA if Iran continues the activities that it’s undertaken with regard to its nuclear program…The ball remains in Iran’s court, and we will see if they’re prepared to make the decisions necessary to come back into compliance,” US Secretary Antony Blinken said this week on a visit to Kuwait.

Another US official suggested that the United States and Iran could descend into a tug-of-war on who has the longer breath and who blinks first. It’s a war that so far has not produced expected results for the United States and in which Iran has paid a heavy price for standing its ground.

The official said that a breakdown in talks could “look a lot like the dual-track strategy of the past—sanctions pressure, other forms of pressure, and a persistent offer of negotiations. It will be a question of how long it takes the Iranians to come to the idea they will not wait us out.”

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Americas

Wendy Sherman’s China visit takes a terrible for the US turn

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Photo: Miller Center/ flickr

US Deputy Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman, had high hopes for the meeting in China. At first, the Chinese side did not agree to hold the meeting at all. The reaction had obvious reasons: Antony Blinken’s fiasco in Alaska left the Chinese disrespected and visibly irritated. This is not why they travelled all the way.

So then the State Department had the idea of sending Wendy Sherman instead. The US government actually needs China more than China needs the US. Sherman was in China to actually prepare the ground for Biden and a meeting between the two presidents, expecting a red carpet roll for Biden as if it’s still the 2000s — the time when it didn’t matter how the US behaved. Things did not go as expected.

Instead of red carpet talk, Sherman heard Dua Lipa’s “I got new rules”. 

That’s right — the Chinese side outlined three bottom lines warning the US to respect its system, development and sovereignty and territorial integrity. In other words, China wants to be left alone.

The bottom lines were not phrased as red lines. This was not a military conflict warning. This was China’s message that if any future dialogue was to take place, China needs to be left alone. China accused the US of creating an “imaginary enemy”. I have written about it before — the US is looking for a new Cold War but it doesn’t know how to start and the problem is that the other side actually holds all the cards

That’s why the US relies on good old militarism with an expansion into the Indo-Pacific, while aligning everyone against China but expecting the red carpet and wanting all else in the financial and economic domains to stay the same. The problem is that the US can no longer sell this because there are no buyers. Europeans also don’t want to play along.

The headlines on the meeting in the US press are less flattering than usual. If the US is serious about China policy it has to be prepared to listen to much more of that in the future. And perhaps to, yes, sit down and be humble.

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Americas

Why Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer

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When Sarah Huckabee Sanders showed up on the scene as White House Press Secretary, the reaction was that of relief. Finally — someone civil, normal, friendly. Jen Psaki’s entry this year was something similar. People were ready for someone well-spoken, well-mannered, even friendly as a much welcome change from the string of liars, brutes or simply disoriented people that the Trump Administration seemed to be lining up the press and communications team with on a rolling basis. After all, if the face of the White House couldn’t keep it together for at least five minutes in public, what did that say about the overall state of the White House behind the scenes?

But Psaki’s style is not what the American media and public perceive it to be. Her style is almost undetectable to the general American public to the point that it could look friendly and honest to the untrained eye or ear. Diplomatic or international organization circles are perhaps better suited to catch what’s behind the general mannerism. Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer, but a Sean Spicer nevertheless. I actually think she will do much better than him in Dancing With The Stars. No, in fact, she will be fabulous at Dancing With The Stars once she gets replaced as White House Press Secretary.

So let’s take a closer look. I think what remains undetected by the general American media is veiled aggression and can easily pass as friendliness. Psaki recently asked a reporter who was inquiring about the Covid statistics at the White House why the reporter needed that information because Psaki simply didn’t have that. Behind the brisk tone was another undertone: the White House can’t be questioned, we are off limits. But it is not and that’s the point. 

Earlier, right at the beginning in January, Psaki initially gave a pass to a member of her team when the Politico stunner reporter story broke out. The reporter was questioning conflict of interest matters, while the White House “stud” was convinced it was because he just didn’t chose her, cursing her and threatening her. Psaki sent him on holidays. Nothing to see here folks, move along.

Psaki has a level of aggression that’s above average, yet she comes across as one of the most measured and reasonable White House Press Secretaries of the decade. And that’s under pressure. But being able to mask that level of deflection is actually not good for the media because the media wants answers. Style shouldn’t (excuse the pun) trump answers. And being able to get away smoothly with it doesn’t actually serve the public well. Like that time she just walked away like it’s not a big deal. It’s the style of “as long as I say thank you or excuse me politely anything goes”. But it doesn’t. And the American public will need answers to some questions very soon. Psaki won’t be able to deliver that and it would be a shame to give her a pass just because of style.

I think it’s time that we start seeing Psaki as a veiled Sean Spicer. And that Dancing with the Stars show — I hope that will still run despite Covid.

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