By Parameswaran Ponnudurai
The slaying of terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden is expected to prompt the United States and China to review strategies to shore up their influence in Asia.
The death of the architect of the deadly 9/11 attacks could mean a faster departure of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and waning U.S. assistance to Pakistan, paving the way for China to boost its presence in Southwest Asia, analysts said.
A major review of the U.S. war on terror, they said, may also lead to Washington refocusing its priorities on China, which has been beefing up its political and economic muscle, especially in Southeast Asia, as America battled bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda network.
American anti-terror actions in Afghanistan and Pakistan since the September 11, 2001 attacks have in a sense benefited China, which saw bin Laden’s political agenda a direct threat to its northwestern territory of Xinjiang, where Uyghur Muslims are seeking greater autonomy and cultural and religious freedoms.
China has significant emerging investments in the Middle East and Southwest Asia but it has been mostly watching from the sidelines as the U.S. does the military heavy lifting.
Beijing has provided minimal assistance to the United States and the NATO-led International security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan in these efforts.
The U.S. also took the responsibility of keeping Pakistan from collapse and managing the balance of power with Pakistan’s nuclear archrival India.
“As the U.S. presence diminishes—though it will not disappear—China will face the prospect of a power vacuum on its restive western border that a surplus of militant forces are willing and able to fill,” analysts at the global security analysis firm Stratfor said in a report this week.
Possible Challenge to Beijing
While China has prepared for years for the U.S. to leave, Stratfor cautioned that any accelerated U.S. exit “heightens Beijing’s concerns that a freed-up U.S. military and foreign policy will soon allow Washington to more aggressively challenge Beijing in other areas.”
“And even as its concerns in South Asia begin to mount, the biggest threat to China is the possibility that the United States will use its regained capability and focus to try to prevent China from disrupting U.S. dominance in the Asia-Pacific region,” it said.
Ernest Bower, a Southeast Asian expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said bin Laden’s death is “an important step to reasserting U.S. interests in the Asia Pacific, specifically and especially in Southeast Asia.”
He calls it a “paradigm shift” and as “coming not a moment too soon.”
“The United States has sacrificed promoting its interests in Asia for over a decade now, focusing on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said.
“Meanwhile, China, which has benefited handsomely from an enormous U.S. commitment to secure peace and prosperity in Asia following World War II, has smartly taken advantage of the situation and built its economic influence, specifically in Southeast Asia and in the Asia Pacific more generally.”
He said that the new U.S. focus on Asia should see resources redirected from hard power to soft power, from global warfare to local community building.
Bower pointed out that while China has brought new markets and investment to the region, the rest of Asia “has real concerns” about its intentions.
He cited as an example China’s handling of maritime territorial disputes from the South China Sea to the Senkaku Islands, which has triggered age-old regional anxieties about a hegemon with unclear intentions and values.
Based on U.S. President Barack Obama’s plans, a drawdown of U.S. troops from Afghanistan will begin by this July, with the process to be completed by 2014.
Osama’s death won’t change U.S. plans for Afghanistan, Obama has stressed.
But calls are intensifying from the U.S. Congress, including from lawmakers influential in foreign policy, for a speedy withdrawal as the world’s largest economy reels from soaring debt and deficit problems.
A bill was introduced this week in the House of Representatives by two lawmakers—a Republican and Democrat—requiring Obama to present an Afghan “exit” strategy.
For some groups in the United States, “the new challenge is China, not obscure Islamists in far off places,” said Sandy Gordon, a security expert at the Australian National University.
Lawmakers have also questioned billions of dollars in U.S. aid to Pakistan following the killing of bin Laden by U.S. special forces in a safehouse in Abbottabad city north of the Pakistani capital Islamabad and a short drive from the nation’s top military academy.
Hard to justify
“Should it emerge that any elements in the Pakistani administration knew of his presence, it will be hard for the U.S. to justify the U.S.$3 billion aid package it provides to Pakistan each year, especially when it is bleeding financially itself,” Gordon said.
If U.S.-Pakistan ties weaken, Islamabad is expected to seek more military and financial aid from Beijing, which analysts say cannot abandon the Islamic nation.
“Beijing needs help in stabilizing Pakistan’s domestic and regional security environment. It also aims to expand economic interests in the Indus Valley and develop infrastructure connections that can serve as a land bridge to the Indian Ocean,” Stratfor analysts said.
China-Pakistan ties are strong, with Beijing providing significant military support in an apparent bid to balance India’s political and economic rise.
Two weeks before bin Laden’s killing, Pakistan urged Afghanistan at landmark talks to distance itself from the West and tie its future more tightly to that of China and Pakistan, according to news reports.
“You couldn’t tell exactly what they meant, whether China could possibly be an alternative to the United States, but they were saying it could help both countries,” an Afghan official was quoted as saying by the New York Times.
Then, on the eve of bin Laden’s slaying, China and Pakistan concluded a strategic dialogue which focused on expanding cooperation on counterterrorism and in Afghanistan.
China has also stoutly defended Pakistan amid charges by some U.S. groups that the country must have been complicit in harboring bin Laden.
After hailing bin Laden’s death as a “positive development in the international struggle against terrorism,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman praised Pakistan’s “vigorous” efforts to fight terrorism.
“China will continuously and firmly support Pakistan to lay out and implement anti-terror strategies based on its own domestic situation,” Jiang Yu said.