Monday, November 21, 2005

Bush Challenges China on Political and Religious Freedoms: But Does He Have an Asia Strategy?

With the visit of the US President to Asia, the US is once again trying tograpple with the momentous transformation that has taken place in globalpolitics in the last few years. The locus of international politics hasvirtually shifted from Europe to Asia and the President’s 4-nation tour of Asia is an acknowledgement of this reality. His visit comes at a time when the Bush Administration is trying to carve out a coherent strategy for Asia.

The underlying thrust for this recasting of US security strategy for Asia iscoming from China’s phenomenal rise as a global economic and political power inthe last few decades. China’s extraordinary rates of economic growth have givenit the ability to modernize its military rapidly. As a consequence, the balanceof power is Asia has undergone a radical transformation in the last few yearsand has given rise to new regional tensions. The emerging Sino-Japanese tensions are just one of its manifestations. Despite growing economic tiesbetween China and Japan, Sino-Japanese diplomatic relations are at an all timelow. A range of political and territorial disputes have plunged relationsbetween Asia’s two biggest powers to a historic low.
Japan has made it clear that it considers China a potential military threat thatwould have to be faced and countered in the coming years. This was followed byJapan’s announcement that a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue is astrategic objective that it shares with the United States, signaling to China that it might help America defend Taiwan in the event of a war. For its part,China has strongly opposed Japan’s bid to become a permanent member of theUnited Nations Security Council on the grounds that Japan has failed to show sufficient contrition for its wartime atrocities. But the real reason might bereluctance on the part of China to view Japan as global power on par withitself.

During the recent visit of the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld to Japan,the US and Japan signed a major mutual-security agreement that will lead to anew security architecture in Asia-Pacific. The ultimate aim of the recent agreement is to help Japan became more able to counter a range of threats toits security. Towards this end, a closer US-Japan military cooperation isenvisioned, including the basing of an American nuclear-powered naval vessel ina Japanese port. During his visit President Bush also emphasized America's closepolitical, economic, and security ties with Japan and made it a point tochallenge China on its record on democracy. He went to the extent of suggesting that China should emulate the democratic progress of Taiwan.

There were no major breakthroughs in Sino-US relations during the recent visit as was expected. But the trip clearly revealed the evolving US strategy towards Asia.Even as the US continues to engage China economically, it is becoming wary of China's authoritarian character and rising military prowess. The US Secretary of Defense has already openly questioned double-digit percentage increases in Chinese military spending. But US policymakers have come to accept China's rising economic and political profile as a fact that the US must learn to manage rather than openly challenge. And the US is trying to manage China's rise by cultivating other allies in the region.
It is in this context that India's role becomes much more significant. The strategic environment that had constrained Indo-US ties in the past from achieving their full potential is now an enabling factor, as Indo-US ties are at an all-time high. Whether India likes it or not, India’s role is set to become the determining factor in shaping the security environment of Asia in the next few decades. It remains to be seen if the Indian government is capable of taking on this challenge.

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