[Viewpoint] The U.S. confronts China

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[Viewpoint] The U.S. confronts China

The primary focus of U.S. foreign policy has shifted to Asia from the war on terror as a result of the Chinese juggernaut. Washington does not outright admit to the new campaign, but it has been self-evident in its marshalling of regional supporters as it clashes with China over issues on exchange rates, trade, the environment and security.

The campaign to encircle China has been tempting to Asian countries that are fearful and uneasy about China’s regional hegemony. The seeking by the U.S. for outside help may be part of the power shift from West to East or just the result of its waning clout on the international stage.

The recent itinerary of foreign trips by President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton underscores how much the global circumstances have changed along with U.S. foreign strategy. The president’s Nov. 6-14 trip in Asia had been carefully divided among India, Indonesia, South Korea and Japan.

The four countries are all democratic states. India and Japan are economic and strategic rivals to China. Indonesia is at the center of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Obama promised to support India’s bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council and signed a comprehensive partnership agreement with Indonesia. China naturally would have been annoyed by the sight of the blatant cozying up by the Americans to its regional neighbors.

The state secretary has been equally busy. She toured six countries in the Asia-Pacific region, covering Vietnam, China, Cambodia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand and Australia from Oct. 29 to Nov. 8. In Australia, she was joined by Defense Secretary Robert Gates. It is an unprecedented full-fledged high-profile display of diplomacy in the region in stark contrast to the Bush administration when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice snubbed the region by skipping the annual Asean Regional Forum twice.

The U.S. made an impressive debut at the East Asian Summit held in Vietnam on Oct. 30. The six-year-old EAS group has become an extended family, with the U.S. and Russia joining the 10 Asean plus Three group along with Australia, New Zealand and India. It might as well have to think about picking out a new name for the gathering as it goes well beyond East Asia.

Clinton, appearing on behalf Obama, spoke bluntly about maritime sovereignty and resolving territorial disputes according to international laws, sending a strong message to China that Washington is behind Asean in its conflict with China over territories in the South China Sea.

Clinton in Cambodia offered to negotiate the settling of $450 million in unpaid debt the country incurred in the 1970s under the U.S.-backed regime. She revealed the purpose of her visit to the region by telling the Cambodians to seek broad partnerships and avoid becoming over-reliant on China. “You don’t want to get too dependent on any one country,” she said in a meeting with Cambodian youth.

In New Zealand and Australia, she declared support for strengthened military ties to fend off China’s rising influence in the region. Washington has activated the 3-D - diplomacy, defense and development - strategy.

Obama’s Asia policy emulates the “grand alliance” pursued by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to muster support in the war against Germany. “For 400 years, the British policy has been to oppose the strongest power in Europe by uniting all the lesser powers against it.” The alliance with “lesser powers” helped to defeat and destroy a monstrous tyranny and maintain peace in Europe, he contended, adding it was not a choice but the rule of public policy.

China may be overly protective of North Korea and Myanmar in order to support its partners in the contest against the U.S. It does not care what the other members of the world community think as it focuses on the fight for hegemony with the U.S. The rise and fall of a powerful nation gives birth to a new world order.

From where we stand it is hard to decipher the scope and direction of the tsunami caused by the hegemony contest in Asia-Pacific. South Korea has a time bomb on its hands with uncertainties over North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s health and the unstable power succession to his son Kim Jong-un.

We have to keep our attention on three things as we approach the inception of a new global order.

First, we should maintain low-profile diplomacy and resist the temptation of reaching pass our limits following the successful hosting of the G-20 Summit. Second, we should be consistent on our North Korean policy, approaching the country not as a risk or burden, but as a new frontier of opportunities. Third, we must realign our diplomatic and national security system. Establishing a U.S.-style National Security Council is an idea to systematize diplomacy, defense and intelligence in one organ. The incumbent government cannot fulfill all these goals during its two remaining years. The candidates for next presidency should embark on this grand design.

*The writer is editor of foreign policy and security affairs at the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Oh Young-hwan
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