The US and the Future: Middle East to Asia

Whether under President George W. Bush or Barack Obama, America’s strategy in the Middle East has been fairly consistent. Although President Obama succeeded in drawing down and withdrawing troops from Iraq, the continuing campaign in Afghanistan remains more or less the same, punctuated only by talks of withdrawal dates. If anything, Obama has reinforced America’s resolve in neutralizing terrorist leaders through the increased use of drone strikes.

However, the unilateralism so readily displayed by Bush has softened, in part perhaps by a nation subdued after the costly Iraq debacle, as well as a stagnant domestic economy. With the death of Osama bin Laden and disruption of terrorist networks, the Middle East, while still important, is slowly being supplanted by Asia.

But there is no war to be fought in Asia. To be sure, terrorism and piracy are regional US concerns, but the focus has shifted towards a more economic-oriented objective. Hampered by the recession, the US is looking towards Asia as a path towards recovery.

Turning to Asia-Pacific

Whether it is President Obama or President Romney next year, both men will not shy away from promoting an American presence in the Asia-Pacific.

Front and center is China, whose economic practices, such as currency manipulation, including issues pertaining to intellectual copyright, have been a constant source of irritation for the US. Moreover, Chinese activities in the South China Sea (claiming the entirety of the sea as Chinese) have raised alarms among its neighbors.

The US’s return will therefore serve two purposes: one, to confront China on its activities on and off the market, directly or indirectly; and, two, to improve ties between the two countries. The latter, however, may prove difficult. Most recently, China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi issued a not-so-subtle warning to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to steer clear of issues pertaining to Chinese sovereignty, specifically the South China Sea.

Not yet recovered from the economic recession, the US finds itself vulnerable. The vast fortunes spent in Iraq and Afghanistan have made for a war-weary American public, which has translated to a less confrontational (but not less aggressive, e.g. increased drone strikes) American foreign policy. Libya perhaps best exemplified this new and fairly relative internationalist, multi-lateral US demeanor.

Where the battle lines were drawn clearly in Libya, the same cannot be said about the Asia-Pacific. Competing claims over territory do not simply pit China against country “x” but also fellow American allies such as Japan and Korea over the Takeshima/Dokdo islets. Resolutions to these territorial disputes will therefore require more carrot and less stick, diplomatic finesse over military might.

The US, perhaps in anticipating the difficulties and complexities of these territorial disputes, has yet to openly come down on one side or the other, although it has maintained an interest in them. Its desire to see a multilateral resolution serves as a sore point for China, which has sought to resolve matters through bilateral negotiations, but emboldened other claimant states such as the Philippines and Vietnam.

Whether the US is truly above the fray can be argued otherwise; however, its actions thus far have demonstrated a country that is comfortable keeping its distance. Rather, the US has worked to establish and strengthen its position in the region. Joint naval exercises with allies and non-traditional partners (Vietnam) are becoming increasingly common. Instead of tackling matters head-on, American policy in the region, it seems, is to build a coalition of like-minded nations and to find strength through numbers. While American unilateralism has not faded, the American public’s appetite for unilateralism has surely been sated.

Looking at Vietnam

Vietnam, for example, a potential regional partner for the United States, proves just how difficult this outreach might be. In espousing peace, prosperity, and democracy, the US will find some countries in the area that do not place much importance on these values. Vietnam, with its record of human rights abuses and lack of democracy, will prove especially challenging, for said reason and more.

Vietnam has the undesirable situation of being China’s neighbor. This is a fact made worse than it sounds given the history between these two countries. Ultimately, size matters, and Vietnam is constantly living in the shadow of its much larger neighbor to the north.

Hanoi can neither come out against China nor can it fall in line with Beijing without upsetting the Vietnamese people, many of whom regard China with distrust. The US administration should therefore be wary of cornering the government in its dealings and pushing the country into the hands of China. Ultimatums along the lines of “take it or leave it” will achieve little, if nothing, in the long run. Having already proved its contempt for the rights and dignity of its citizens, the Vietnamese government, although desiring American weapons technology, could and would just as well purchase its armaments from other suppliers.

The Vietnamese government’s natural inclination to resist may prove to be the primary obstacle to democratic reform rather than whatever concerns voiced by China. One need only look at the slow democratization process occurring in Burma, which has thus far been free of direct Chinese interference. Presently, there appears to be little love lost between the Communists of Vietnam and China. Shared ideologies are second to financial interests. Whether Vietnam is a democracy or a Communist single-party state, China’s outlook on Vietnam will hardly change.

Undoubtedly, any US-proposed effort to reform Vietnam will be met with some suspicion by the Vietnamese people; however, if one to is to draw conclusions from events occurring within the country, it seems Vietnam is ready for democracy. If the US wishes to strengthen ties with Vietnam, progress can only come about after political reform.

The Communist Party has become fractious as intra-party rivals threaten to destabilize the government. In a multi-party state, none of this would be particularly shocking given policy and ideological differences; however, where the Communist Party’s power in Vietnam is absolute, a political coup d’état could be disastrous for a country where a sense of progress, stability, and continuity is paramount.

The institutions of old are weakening, and as fears of China’s assertiveness continue to mount, the United States can offer itself as an alternative to balance China’s rise. Although the US has made it its goal to engage China and help the latter grow to become a partner on the world stage, this should not prevent countries like Vietnam from seeking American assistance.

Rather than stamp its feet and loudly announce its arrival, the US should cultivate relationships with regional countries, so as to better its standing in the region. Efforts to promote democracy and protect human rights, such as in Vietnam, would go far to establish goodwill with the people. Rather than strong arming the government of these countries into agreement, a softer touch is required. Rather than appealing to authoritarian regimes, it may be necessary for the US to appeal to the people of these states.

(Khanh Vu Duc is a Vietnamese Canadian lawyer in Ottawa who researches on international relations and international law. He is a frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel.)