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Sunday, November 27, 2011

Appearances aside, not yet all at sea: US vs China!

President Barack Obama confers with U.S.Secret...Image via Wikipedia

Appearances aside, not yet all at sea

Behind The Headlines By BUNN NAGARA

THE People’s Liberation Army (PLA) set up a new office to streamline its management last Tuesday, and this week the PLA Navy will conduct training in the Western Pacific.

Some of this may be China’s response to enhanced US manoeuvres in the region, although in declaring plans to station US troops in northern Australia, President Barack Obama said they were “not aimed against any country in particular”.

Beijing also described the sea exercises as “routine” and not aimed against any country in particular. How did it all begin?

In Tokyo, Hanoi and Manila, China’s recent postures over disputed maritime territory have made a renewal of US “commitment” to the region timely.

However, Beijing sees recent US moves in Vietnam and the Philippines, following alliance-building in Japan, Australia and India, as provocative encirclement.

China’s moves are then regarded as justified reaction. Only the type and degree of reaction are being debated in Beijing.

China is neither anxious nor impatient to respond to US moves. Any change in Chinese foreign policy or naval deployment would take time through party-government-military hierarchies, and present circumstances discourage it.

The US is heading into a presidential election, with China itself readying for leadership changes next year. Beijing wants to avoid being sidetracked or becoming a US election issue.

The atmosphere of mutual US-China suspicion has developed so keenly as to make caveats necessary. In announcing diplomatic initiatives in Myanmar, Washington said they were not meant to isolate Myanmar’s long-time ally China.

But US attempts at alliance-building have seen patchy results. South Korea’s right-wing President Lee Myung-bak has not agreed to just about any US proposal to counter China’s rise.

Seoul is unimpressed by Obama’s trade grouping, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a discreet alliance that excludes China. Australia is in this effort to draw a dividing line down the Pacific but not Japan, since the latter already hosts US troops and has military ties with the US.

For the TPP to exclude the second and third largest economies in the world shows its main concern cannot be trade. And for the US to dominate the TPP’s membership reveals its unilateral nature.

South Korea is unsympathetic to the TPP since it already has problems domestically in ratifying a Free Trade Agreement with the US. However much some countries may agree ideologically, national interests come first.

The same applies to the US in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which Washington has signed but refused to ratify. The US here is in the company of a handful of countries like Afghanistan, Bhutan, Burundi, North Korea, Iran, Libya and Rwanda.

A total of 161 countries, including China, have signed and ratified the Law of the Sea treaty covering the rights and responsibilities of nations at sea, from issues like navigation to pollution. China is particularly irked when the US lectures it on how to behave at sea.

China’s latest overtures have been attractive offers: US$10bil (RM319.7bil) in trade credits for Asean, US$3bil (RM9.6bil) for a new maritime cooperation fund, and efforts to boost two-way trade to US$400bil (RM1.3 trillion) this year alone.

Last Wednesday, Japan’s Foreign Minister visited Beijing, and the next day both countries jointly announced a commitment to build stronger ties. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda will visit China next year to mark the 40th anniversary of normalised relations.

In foreign policy, China is at a promising crossroads. This establishment has long been a small elite, founded largely on the Standing Committee Politburo of the Communist Party and the Central Military Commission, yet whose composition has been somewhat messy.

But that establishment is now more open than before, with more inputs from other actors such as diplomats, scholars, policy researchers, media, major state corporations and local governments. The Foreign Ministry may be heralding the opening of a new China, provided that foreign provocations do not force a reversal.

Current US strategy on China is multi-pronged, which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calls “smart power”: an opportune combination of “hard” and “soft” power as coined by Harvard’s Joseph Nye.

Hard power concerns traditional power like military forces, whereas soft power covers cultural issues like mass entertainment, Peace Corps volunteers and institutions like the TPP and the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI).

The “hard” and “soft” concepts are analogous to Chinese kung fu, whose written records of these styles go back at least 2,500 years. So China already has a head start on that.

And in kung fu, the soft style may be less obvious but more sophisticated and effective.

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