Hu Jintao actually is not as affectionate towards the American president as Benetton had envisioned. If anything, he is scowling, and for good reason. Uncle Sam has returned to the region, and returned with a big bang. After declaring that he would send troops to occupy Australia's northern region, Obama confirmed the United State’s intention to restore ties with Myanmar, long under China's domination. The president also was present during a meeting at the ASEAN Summit in Bali, where Southeast Asian nation leaders confronted China about an ongoing dispute over territorial rights in the South China Sea.
"While we are not a claimant in the South China Sea dispute,” Obama declared at the summit, “and while we do not take sides, we have a powerful stake in maritime security in general, and in the resolution of the South China Sea issue specifically -- as a resident Pacific power, as a maritime nation, as a trading nation and as a guarantor of security in the Asia Pacific region."
China was understandably taken aback. For nearly a decade, it dominated the region more or less unimpeded. As the United States’ influence wanes, China with its rising economic power and the second-most powerful naval fleet in the world naturally reverted to its pre-18th century Sino-centric mode. It forced Vietnam into ceding precious territory along its southern border, twisting its arms to open up its pristine central highland for bauxite mining, creating havoc and pollution and mass removal of ethnic minorities in the process. It solidified its claim over the Spratly archipelago, a contentious area in the South China Sea claimed by the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and Vietnam – a region rich in untapped oil and mineral deposits.
China may practice soft power elsewhere, but in the Pacific Region it exerts a kind of 18th century gunboat diplomacy, arresting fishermen from other countries for fishing in otherwise recognized open waters. It sabotaged Vietnam's oil exploration ships by cutting their cables. Despite protests, it is claiming almost the entire South China Sea as its own territory, all the way to Borneo. If China achieves its goal, no doubt it'll be the most well-placed country in the world both in terms of maritime strategy and access to coveted natural resources.
Once an empire that demanded vassalage from surrounding countries, the Middle Kingdom seems to be gleefully reasserting its might-makes-right prowess in the absence of the United States. Before contacts with western powers in the 18th century, and the subsequent Opium War that shattered an already weakened imperial China, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Korea, and Japan were all deemed “barbarian lands.” In the Sino-centric system, these countries pay tribute to China and send their treasures to its imperial court at regular intervals as a way to receive protection. A system of tributes and trade was established with interval rebellions that would be rudely wiped out by the Middle Kingdom's dominant military might.
An America mired in the Middle East is a windfall for the Middle Kingdom in the South China Sea. And it spells bad news for the Pacific Rim nations, not to mention all those that border China to the south and northeast. They watch with trepidation as the old empire reawakens. Indeed, ask any Thai, Burmese, Laotian or Vietnamese what they make of China's new expansionist ambitions and they will more than likely say a powerful China, without the United States in the picture, will mean a subservient Southeast Asia.
Up until Obama's attendance at the summit in Bali, the United States had been playing the game of détente. It affirmed the United States national interest in the region by participating in naval exercise with South Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines, but it provided little else by way of deterrence. But by sending troops to Australia, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Myanmar to visit with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi -- who is planning to run for president in the next election in a country that is significantly moving away from China's influences -- America is signaling a game change.
“Should the government pursue genuine and lasting reform for the benefits of its citizens, it will find a partner in the United States,” Clinton declared on Nov. 10. She will be the first secretary of state to visit Myanmar in 50 years.
Democracy, after all, is a bane to China. In communist Vietnam, there's a saying, “Follow China, lose the country. Follow the U.S., lose the Party.” Its meaning is clear to all who watch the dilemma that Vietnam has been facing in the years following a thaw of the Cold War.
Beijing exerts extraordinary power over Hanoi in order to keep it from going democratic, while wrestling territorial and sea rights from Vietnam at the same time. On the other hand, Hanoi has been beckoning the United States to strengthen ties with it, and has even offered it Cam Ranh Bay. The base was once a potent symbol during the Cold War, and Hanoi vowed never to let foreign powers occupy it -- that is, until last year when it announced that America was more than welcome to use it again. But if the United States returns militarily to Vietnam, it will no doubt push for a multiparty system and more human rights in the country. That would spell the end of monopoly of power for the Communist Party. The same could be said about Laos and Myanmar.
For Beijing, the sudden shift of alliances would mean its expansionist ideals would be seriously challenged. After all, if the Burmese, Vietnamese and Laotians can have free elections, why not the Chinese? And if the United States returns its naval fleet to the place where it was once defeated, it can surely checkmate China's maritime designs.
For the United States, deterrence in the pacific region is a must. Given the strategic shipping lanes of the South China Sea and untapped natural resources, its national interest is at stake. There is a need to counterbalance China's imminent rise. But the question remains as to whether it has the political will to engage, given the economic crisis at home.
Andrew Lam is author of East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres and Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora. His book of short stories, Birds of Paradise, is due out in 2013.
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