The U.S.’s new Asia Pacific policy is becoming clearer following its hosting of the APEC Summit in Honolulu and its debut participation in the East Asia Summit, both in November.
After waging a costly war in Iraq, claiming the lives of over 4000 GIs as well as some 110,000 Iraqis, and another in Afghanistan, which will be a decade old next year, the U.S. will finally pull out of war zones in the Middle East and Central Asia. It must have realized by now that it is facing a multiplicity of challenges.
The U.S. system failed to prevent its wrongful war in Iraq, either on the basis of anti-terrorism motives or weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) myths. The U.S. owes the world an apology and compensation, particularly to Iraq, as well as bringing past leadership to account for the invasion and its consequences. With the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, the Taliban is likely to roll back in and al- Qaeda is even less likely to be eradicated. Also, the unilateralism of past U.S. foreign policy initiatives has left a big void in its reputation and involvement in East Asia, while China’s multilateralism in the region has earned much success.
These challenges are fundamental and raise questions about whether the U.S. is able to avoid future aggression such as that it waged against Iraq? If not, could it remedy past wrongdoings? If not, how could it claim to lead East Asia and other parts of the world?
Contrary to many who support the U.S.’s traditional role to defend peace and to stabilize regions, most recently articulated by Secretary of State Clinton in November’s issue of Foreign Policy, the U.S. war against Iraq has neither created peace in that country nor stabilized the Middle East. Even worse, such aggression runs counter to the core American values of democracy and fairness. So far, there has been little debate in the U.S. as to how this could have occurred.
The U.S. seems prone to forget its mischievous participation in the Asia Pacific region. At the end of the WWII, the U.S. and the Soviet Union immorally partitioned the Korean Peninsula which was for centuries historically and ethnically integrated. This unethical imposition of the will of two contemporary superpowers undercut the fundamental interests of all Koreans, now living under two different flags, and demonstrated no leadership in nurturing peace on the peninsula.
The U.S. war in Vietnam again showed lack of judgment and morality in interfering in the interests of the Vietnamese. The American push against communism could not have brought peace and justice to the country. Ironically, the unification of Vietnam, under Hanoi’s terms, brought national dignity and honor to its people and ushered in an age of national re-building and construction.
America’s intervention in China’s internal affairs by supplying weapons to Taiwan has hardly fermented real peace across the Taiwan Strait. The mainland’s national objective is unfulfilled, partly due to U.S. military meddling and coercion which is against international law. It is hard for many Chinese people to accept America’s ‘right’ to impose peace this way as, on the other hand, Beijing espouses doing its utmost to moderate the situation on its terms for a fundamental peace.
The U.S.’s handling of Iraq is its most recent disaster. According to former Senator Edward Kennedy, “this (war) is the darkest page of U.S. foreign policy since the union has been made.” President Obama was elected in part for opposing the war and he is now bringing the Gls home.
The discussions at APEC addressing freer trade and collaboration to rebalance it are helpful at a time when the financial crisis in the U.S. and Europe has yet to be resolved. But stressing a U.S. ‘return’ to Asia to provide a balance to China, through the East Asia Summit, doesn’t seem to be asserting rightful or appropriate leadership.
For the past year, the U.S. has been high handed in spruiking its East Asia policy in the wake of the war on terror. Its principal aim is to check and balance China in East Asia while reassuring its security partners in the region of its determined presence. To this end it has strengthened its forward deployment of forces, backing its security partners, old and new, to encourage their territorial disputes with China.
The United States’ action would be reasonable if China had violated any international law. In fact, China has been asserting sovereignty established for over ten centuries by claiming all islands in the South China Sea and waters close to them. China claimed in 1958 that waters around the islands should be “territorial” for 12 nautical miles, though it could acquire an additional 188 nm as a result of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The convention is observed internationally.
More than anything China has done, U.S. weapons sales to Taiwan have violated international law. just as its aggression against Iraq has abused international law. The U.S. has nothing to gain by organizing an international coalition of the willing to put pressure on China which has no intention of seeking illegitimate gains abroad. Ironically, China could indeed ‘gain’ when the U.S. devises new schemes to squander resources that otherwise would be better spent resolving its domestic difficulties.
It is clear that, in a matter of one or two decades, the U.S. economy, despite likely growth, might lag behind China. Indeed if the U.S. had not entered the wars in Vietnam and Iraq its resources would have been plentiful enough to sustain its leadership of the global economy. Now it seems to be determined to accelerate its decline by designating a non-existing threat and committing to wasting resources to contain it. There is no faster way for the U.S. to lose its paramount power in the shortest possible time.
China claims to not want to bring harm to others. But it also understands that the U.S. intends to hedge, at least this time, China’s interests within its territory. It appears that Beijing is not yet worried enough to make a response. It will not enter a race with the U.S. to embark on needless waste of resources simply because the U.S. is willing to do so.
Nevertheless, China has to build up adequate strength to defend its legitimate interests and end U.S. bullying on Taiwan at the earliest possible time. America has to reflect on its leadership ambitions in the region by examining the lessons it learned from meddling in Vietnam and Iraq. China will be harder than them to handle, at the very least by order of magnitude.
Shen Dingli is Executive Dean of Institute of International Studies, and Director of Center for American Studies, Fudan University