Obama’s Visit to Asia Reminds Us of World’s Shifting Power Balance
President Obama is on his 10-day Asia tour of Asia this week, visiting India, Indonesia, South Korea, and Japan. Despite the media attention on the direct U.S. military involvement in the Middle East, the totality of American foreign policy must be understood in the context of South and East Asia.
South and East Asia contain half of earth's human population, the two most dynamic governmental powers, and a tremendous concentration of rare natural resources. One quarter of the world’s traded goods (including a quarter of all oil carried by sea) pass though the 500 mile-wide Strait of Malacca that connects the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Concurrent economic and population booms in a dozen neighboring countries have catalyzed this recipe for instability.
As India and China expand their spheres of influence to secure steady streams of resources for their rapidly growing economies, they are increasingly competing with one another. Traditionally, the Himalayan Mountain Range has served as a buffer between these two seats of Asian power. Today, Chinese air force bases in Tibet place parts of India in their arc of coverage and Indian warships have been begun making unprecedented excursions into the South China Sea.
Japan, the third largest economy in the world with no domestic resources to speak of, has also begun to reassert itself as a region player for the first time in over 60 years. Last week, Japan recalled its ambassador to Russia due to territorial disputes over a series of Pacific islands. Japan’s recent dispute with China over another set of island led to the sinking of a Chinese vessel and anti-Japanese protests across China last month.
Enter the United States. The Obama Administration and many others have advanced the narrative that China and the United States are in a global competition for first place. At a press conference after the midterm elections, President Obama said, “We should be able to agree now that it makes no sense for China to have better rail systems than us. And we just learned that China now has the fastest supercomputer on Earth. That used to be us.”
While these statements play on exaggerated fears, they do reflect one important reality: Americans have to understand foreign policy in the context of events in Asia.
One example is the manner in which the State Department (under both Obama and Bush) has been so outspoken against Iran while taking a markedly more conciliatory tone with Saudi Arabia. Both countries are ruled by oppressive regimes with deplorable human rights records and fund terrorism worldwide. This week, when the United Nations’ newly formed umbrella agency on women’s issues was being formed, Iran failed to receive required number of votes to join. Saudi Arabia, which according to most observers and the UN’s own measure [PDF] has worse track record on women's rights than Iran, was elected as a board member. In the words of Iranian Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Shirin Ebadi, "The membership of countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia is like a joke.”
The United States was heavily lobbying against Iran’s participation in the commission and recently spearheaded another round of crippling sanctions on that country. This international isolation, in turn, is making it much more difficult for the Chinese to access Iranian oil and natural gas reserves which they desperately need and are actively investing in. Likewise, any sanctions on Saudi Arabia would obviously affect US access to energy.
The competition between India, China, Japan, and the United States is becoming increasingly rigorous across Pakistan, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Indonesiaand the Middle East. The antagonism has been reflected in the tone of the G20 summit. However, the U.S. is the only one of these nations that is truly competing globally rather than regionally. And that’s the point—U.S. foreign policy seems to be directed at strengthening Asian relationships to ensure a balance of power in the world’s most dynamic region. These economic rivalries will be the fault lines of the next decade, as these emerging powers attempt to assert themselves globally and the U.S. tries to keep them occupied regionally.
Kayvan Farchadi is a staff writer for Campus Progress.