Spotlight on Geopolitics

The US State Department’s summer diplomatic offensive in South-East Asia has been complemented in Japan by calls to strengthen the US-Japan alliance and to design new collective security structures aimed at containing China. Thus, in a recent article (“Keeping the US engaged in Asia”) published in East Asia Insights, Japanese former deputy foreign minister (LDP) Hitoshi Tanaka lobbies for the creation of a new security architecture in Asia, one in which the US’ traditional allies Japan, Australia and South Korea would play a key role.

The author admits that China has replaced the US as South East Asia’s, as well as Japan’s main trading partner. According to Tanaka, the United States are perceived in the region as economically weakened because of the financial crisis and militarily less reliable than in the past, given their involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. For South East Asian nations, even the moral leadership the US was able to claim until recently has been undermined by its treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. To overcome the current predicament, the Japanese expert is echoing the State Department’s new line on Asia, calling for the implementation of a new security architecture, ideally written for ASEAN by Washington and Tokyo:

To this end, the creation of a new security architecture is crucial. This security architecture should include four layers: The first layer, which serves as the foundation, involves bilateral alliances such as the US-Japan, US-ROK, and US-Australia alliances. The second layer includestrilateral forums, initially focused on confidence-building measures, such as the various arrangements among the United States, Japan, South Korea, and China. The third layer consists of subregional arrangements, most prominently ASEAN and a potential successor to the Six-Party Talks in Northeast Asia. Finally, the fourth layer should include an inclusive regionwide institution with participation from at least all of the EAS nations, including new invitees the United States and Russia. It should have a broad-reaching mandate to effectively deal with a range of nontraditional security challenges, such as disaster relief, terrorism, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.”

In other words, by rekindling bilateral ties with traditional allies and by cultivating “friends” like India, Indonesia and Vietnam, the US would be able to remain engaged in Asia and safeguard its global military leadership. Whilst admitting that policies aimed at “containing” China should be different than the ones employed against the Soviet Union, Tanaka’s proposals have the potential to make the Beijing regime very uncomfortable indeed. The author believes that the US-Japan and ANZUS alliances should be strengthened, although such diplomatic and strategic options do not make a lot of sense in today’s drastically changed geostrategic environment.

To avoid being used in such a manner, ASEAN countries should work closely with China in creating a new security architecture, one that would not implicate the US in the process. Japan’s involvement should be avoided as well, for that matter, at least until the country sorts out its relationship with its American ally and clarifies its security objectives. As a former imperial power in the region, Japan has proved a more ominous military threat to South-East Asia in the past than China has. Already, there is an ample LDP campaign in Japan to rescind Article 9 of the Constitution. That would allow the country to rebuild its army and become a nuclear power. These worrisome developments should be taken into consideration when ASEAN formulates its collective military strategy and formalises its membership list.

As for the United States, the recent military adventure in Iraq should serve as a powerful warning, especially for predominantly Muslim societies like Indonesia, or for countries like Vietnam which have experienced firsthand the results of an earlier alliance of its south with the US. As the State Department’s summer diplomatic offensive has demonstrated, American experts have yet to come up with a foreign policy blueprint which takes into consideration the changed geopolitical landscape – a dangerous situation not only for Asia, but for the US’ European allies as well.

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