Measuring America's Commitment to Asia-Pacific

The average western citizen has probably never heard of the Paracel Islands, an archipelago of 30-plus specks located in the South China Sea. There’s not much to suggest. It’s a good place to fish and perhaps drill for oil, but on the whole the islands are inconsequential. They are not game changers in the sense that control over them would shift geopolitical standings.

Yet for centuries the Paracels have been hotly contested, changing hands between the Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, and French at one point or another. Today the islands are claimed by both China and Vietnam, although it is China that has controlled and garrisoned troops on them. A long and complicated history of ownership has merely added the Paracels to an equally long and complicated list of territorial disputes between China and Vietnam.

Given the less than strategic nature of the islands, however, they are valuable to use to as a measure of the United States’ commitment to Asia and the Pacific.

Expectations

Although China seized the Paracels in the 1970s, their continued control is a demonstration of continuing Chinese regional military might. The China in the 1970s was vastly different from the China today -- predominantly closed to the global community, starved and poor. What can be achieved by today’s China can be much more, and this newfound confidence and capability have worried its neighbors, who have looked to the United States for support to act as a counter-balance to China’s rising influence, But what exactly can these countries expect from the US?

President Barack Obama has more than once expressed American commitment to the Asia-Pacific, economic and security-wise. However, it is questionable just how much the US can do in the region, both financially and militarily. This is not to say that the US has lost its position in the world as a global superpower, but it can no longer wield its influence worldwide as it once did post-Second World War.

One could argue that the US has maintained its resolve but that its capability to project power has dwindled. Economic reality has forced Obama to reduce the US armed forces, while politics and his re-election in particular have made discussion on foreign policy secondary to domestic issues. It is customary, if not necessary, for politicians to talk about issues that interest voters. Elections and re-elections are won by convincing the people that you, as the candidate, have their best interests at heart, and that one's opponent is the source of all the people’s woes.

If those Asian nations currently following the US presidential elections are looking for some clue, some hint as to how the US would approach the region in 2012 and beyond, they are perhaps better off scavenging the Internet for information. This is not to say that US foreign policy has disappeared completely, but it has instead faded into the background.

Looking ahead at more of the same

For the moment, interested parties can only participate in the guessing game. With Obama’s re-election in the balance, there is no telling how the US will approach the Asia-Pacific. However, the Democrats and Republicans are probably not so different with respect to the Asia-Pacific. The rise of China and the rapid growth of the Asian markets, and how the US could benefit from this, are of interest to both political parties.

Should Obama win his bid for a second term, expect him to carry on as he is currently. However, he will undoubtedly put forth more manageable promises given that his focus would be to help lead the US economy back to good standing. A cabinet reshuffle might occur, but it is unlikely that such an event would seriously alter Obama’s foreign policy objectives in the Asia-Pacific.

On the other hand, should Obama lose the White House this November, the Republicans would likely delay addressing Asia-Pacific issues, as there is greater priority in fulfilling campaign promises on the domestic front. Moreover, should the Republicans win, you can expect the first term to be one where foreign policy (save for American commitments in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the volatile nature of Iran) takes a back seat. Those Asian nations looking to the US for support should expect more or less the same if Obama had won—four years of expedient, politically safe forays.

Testing the water

As much as the battle between China and Vietnam over the Paracels in 1974 was a test of the international community’s reaction to China’s seizure of territory, China’s rise this past decade and for the years ahead is a test of the US's commitment to the region. As in the past, and as it appears today, the US has neither the inclination nor the political will to engage in additional and potentially costly foreign operations (Libya being an exception, where the US played a supporting role rather than a leading one).

Where does this leave the Asia-Pacific? On the list of issues to address, Asia would fall somewhere after Iran but before the International Space Station. The reality for politicians is that there is too much to do and too little time to do it. Political agendas are always bigger than reality permits, and, unfortunately but inevitably, that means carrying out said agenda almost always fall short of expectations.

But is this a reflection of the US’s weakening military might, popular discontent at home, or the byproduct of economic difficulties? The answer is perhaps all the above in varying degrees. The US armed forces are indeed shrinking, but the country is still capable of projecting power abroad. Voters, reflecting the attitude of the population as a whole, have expressed their dissatisfaction with Washington DC, in its handling of the recession.

Priorities have changed to focus overwhelmingly on domestic affairs, although one could make the argument that foreign affairs have solely been the domain of Washington politics, with or without the consultation of the American people. And of course, economic constraints have forced the US to reassess its commitments at home and abroad.

The reality is that the potential for US support exists but will be limited. Hindsight being 20/20, however, perhaps I will be proven wrong. Perhaps the US will withdraw from the region or (and maybe a little more likely) the US will commit completely and without reservation. Nevertheless, as long as China remains part of the discussion, so will the United States, that much is certain.

(Khanh Vu Duc is a Vietnamese Canadian lawyer in Ottawa, focusing on various areas of law. He researches on International Relations and International Law.)