America Pivots To Asia While A Giant Awakens – Analysis


The race to the Whitehouse has begun. With the conventions concluded, attention is turning to the upcoming debates. It is less than two months until Election Day, November 6. Thus far the quality of the discourse has been disappointing as the major party candidates have seemed to focus much of their efforts on defining each other in starkly negative terms.

Some fear U.S. – China relations could deteriorate if China becomes a high-profile issue in the U.S. presidential race. However, Chinese observers are used to candidates talking tough about Beijing during elections before reverting to a more measured stance. ‘…from the Chinese perspective we should assume whoever becomes president of the U.S. will have enough composure to realise the stupidity of fooling around with China – U.S. relations, which is the most important bilateral relationship in the world,’ said Victor Gao, director of the China Association of International Studies and a former translator for Deng Xiaoping. ‘It’s not a zero-sum game, like with the U.S. and the former Soviet Union.’

APEC Summit


Far away from Washington, and in another part of the globe, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has been filling in for President Barack Obama last week at the annual gathering of the Asia – Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in Vladivostok, Russia’s port city. Secretary Clinton could not have been clearer when speaking about the importance of the Asia – Pacific region for the world in general and America in particular. ‘This region of the world is the economic engine in what is still a fragile global economy,’ she said. ‘It’s not in the interest of the Asian countries, it’s certainly not in the interest of the United States or the rest of the world, to raise doubts and uncertainties about the stability and peace in the region.’

Shangri-la Dialogue

Secretary Clinton’s statements at the APEC summit last week have been the most recent endorsement in what is a significant shift in the American foreign policy establishment.

Moreover, in a major security policy speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue at Singapore in June 2 this year, U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta unveiled plans to shift the bulk of the U.S. naval fleet to the Pacific by 2020 as part of a new strategic focus on Asia. The U.S. also planned to expand military exercises in the Pacific and to conduct increased port visits over a wider area extending to the Indian Ocean. The announcement came in the wake of the issuance of the new U.S. defence strategy by President Barack Obama in January 2012, calling for a rebalancing of the U.S. military toward the Asia-Pacific region or the U.S. “pivot” towards Asia as it is commonly described now.

In the Foreign Policy Magazine of November 2011, Hilary Clinton writing on “America’s Pacific Century” reiterates the pervasiveness of the American Pivot to Asia: ‘At a time when the region is building a more mature security and economic architecture to promote stability and prosperity, U.S. commitment there is essential. Harnessing Asia’s growth and dynamism is central to American economic and strategic interests and a key priority for President Obama. Our economic recovery at home will depend on exports and the ability of American firms to tap into the vast and growing consumer base of Asia. Strategically, maintaining peace and security across the Asia-Pacific is increasingly crucial to global progress.’ She goes further to describe the pivot ‘as among the most important diplomatic efforts of our time.’

American foreign policy towards South Asia

Zooming in from the larger Asian context to the South Asian region in particular, where Sri Lanka indeed plays an increasingly critical role, Sumit Ganguly, Professor of Political Science at Indiana University and Fellow of the Woodrow Wilson International Centre at a meeting held in Colombo recently explained his perspective on U.S. Foreign Policy towards South Asia with special reference to Sri Lanka. The key messages of his remarks were as follows: South Asia was a backwater for the U.S.A. twenty years ago. This was due to a derivative of U.S. policy and interests, and not because of anything intrinsic or specific in South Asia. Though human rights concerns were general and foreign assistance was an interest, it was but part of an overall foreign aid strategy.

Today, however, he opined that the situation is completely different – South Asia is now central to the American foreign policy and security establishments in what is very likely to continue for an extended period of time.

Ganguly set out the four key aspects that formed American interests in South Asia. First, that it considers South Asia as having become an epicentre for global terror. Particularly relevant in this context are the Afghanistan – Pakistan border and pockets of sanctuaries and safe havens existing in the vicinities; second and a related interest is Pakistan’s expanding nuclear arsenal, and America’s understanding of a willingness of Pakistan to support tactical nuclear weapons; third, prospects of economic development in India as having a more market – friendly approach with a high rate of growth post – 1991, the results of which have been visibly apparent and which the American regime have consciously noted.

In this regard, Ganguly commented that had it not been for its three – decade conflict, Sri Lanka would have been streets – ahead of India, given its one – time approach to market – friendly policies. As India’s infrastructure needs public – private partnerships, the Indian market over the next decade is likely to be important especially if most Western nations do not recover from the global financial crisis.

Last and certainly by no means the least is China’s rise: China’s poverty – alleviation strategy has been spectacular and unprecedented, given any time in human history. An entire generation has been lifted from poverty. It must not be forgotten, however, that there have been significant environmental, human and political costs. A new Chinese assertiveness is being felt where China has become the single competitor to the U.S. on a global scale. Accordingly, the only power that could challenge U.S. in terms of becoming a global power is China.

Napoleon’s prophecy comes to pass

As the Chinese presence increases in the international domain, Sri Lankan policy makers will have to decide on the nature, form and extent of its own relationship with the U.S. Sri Lanka’s geopolitical strategic position has and will continue to be important in international relations. As a consequence, the U.S. is likely to continue to be focused on South Asia, Sri Lanka included. Ganguly remarked that we are in a markedly different time today compared to that of the Cold War era, where the once reflexive hostility of Indian elites towards the U.S. has become an artefact of the past.

Prophetic indeed have been the words of Napoleon Bonaparte who once said of China, ‘Let her sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world.’

Speaking specifically on the subject of China’s meteoric rise in the world economy and the opportunities and challenges that have arisen for developing countries, Sri Lanka included, Premachandra Atukorala, Professor of Economics, Australian National University, at a meeting convened in Colombo recently, commented that China as an economy is unique in that it displays characteristics of both a developing and a developed country where the transformation is that of a continent, with continental – style disparities, rather than that of a country, and has consequently attracted three alternative views in terms of its role in the global economy: first, a convergence to the West; Second, achieving “middle kingdom” or “central country”(zhonggu) status; and third, “hybridity” – a combination of what it has learned from the West and also from East Asian neighbours, combined with features of its own history and culture.

The aspect of Chinese aid is worthy of consideration particularly in the Sri Lankan context. While it remains the most controversial aspect in international discourse, China is by no means a new donor, and has a legacy which dates back to the Cold War era. However, a new phase was launched in 2006 at the Beijing Summit of the Forum of China Africa Cooperation.

Interesting to note are the key features of Chinese aid policy which place greater emphasis on infrastructure; supports close links between aid/loans and FDI; do not carry political and economic conditionality; is similar to the World Bank in that its key preoccupation is an emphasis on poverty reduction; and finally is underscored by an ambitious plan for naval expansion. In such a backdrop, it has been established that the preferred strategy for developing countries in what is increasingly termed “the China Challenge” is for the recipient country to shape its encounter with China in such a manner that will most benefit the peoples of the country concerned. Accordingly, where does this leave Sri Lanka? Atukorala remarked that as a small country we are not in a position to reshape China’s policy. What we can in fact do is adapt and integrate in the global economy in such a manner that will enable us to benefit from opportunities that China presents.

International relations in the twenty first century

It has been famously said that when a butterfly flaps its wings in Asia, a storm brews in Europe. What was once a metaphor has today become a fact in international relations.

This article appeared in The Daily Mirror and is reprinted with permission.

Salma Yusuf

Salma Yusuf is a Visiting Lecturer, Masters in Human Rights, University of Colombo and University of Sydney; Visiting Lecturer, Bachelor of Laws, University of Northumbria – Regional Campus for Sri Lanka & Maldives; LL.M, Queen Mary, University of London; Queen Mary Scholar 2008-2009; LL.B (Hons), University of London. She provides legal and policy advisory services on both national and international programmes in the fields of human rights law, transitional justice, comparative social justice, and peace-building. She has authored publications for the Sri Lanka Journal of International Law; the Seattle Journal for Social Justice; the Complutense University of Madrid; the Institue of Human Rights; and the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Email: [email protected]

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