Wednesday, November 30, 2011
Enter the dragon; exit the eagle?
When European and Western hegemony was at its peak in the 1980s and 1990s, my late husband, Ami, often asked why people studied European languages instead of Chinese or Japanese. “Asia,” he said, “is where the future will lie.” If Ami were still alive, he would be justified in saying, “I told you so” (although Hindi, Korean and Indonesian would have been on his list now too!).
Even the US has cottoned-on now, shifting its gaze from the Middle East (where the Arab Spring is starting to look more like autumn) to Asia. The stable societies in our region continue to enjoy booming economic growth despite Europe and America’s financial crisis (which is not global at all, folks!).
That’s why US President Barack Obama hailed the decade-old “Asia-Pacific century” two weeks ago in Australia. He also announced that the US would establish a new foothold in the most dynamic part of the world by strengthening military ties with its longtime ally Down Under. It will deploy 2,500 Marine Air-Ground Task Force in Darwin by 2017 for the first time since World War II.
This generated speculation, controversy and anxiety. Some viewed it negatively, accusing the US of aggressive imperialist ambitions. They said that the move undermined efforts to make the region more peaceful and could tear ASEAN apart. Another analyst said the US had its sights on Timor Leste’s oil reserves and its troubled Freeport interests in Papua. Even our smooth-as-silk foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa, questioned American motives, hoping the deployment wouldn’t create tensions in the region. Given the US’ reputation as a bullying Globocop, these reactions were not surprising, but were they right?
The Darwin base seems to me to be more recognition of American weakness than a statement of ambition. Surely it is really about the US trying to maintain its dwindling power as China rises? It seems to me that if China thinks the US is trying to encircle them, they’d be dead right.
And you can see why: China is currently the second-largest economy after the US, contributing 30 percent of global wealth. Even by conservative estimates, it’s projected to overtake the US as world economic leader by 2027. China is also the US’ banker as well as the world’s factory floor, with global markets flooded with Chinese goods — and takeovers.
In 2005, MG Rover became the last domestically-owned mass-production car manufacturer in Britain, snapped up by the Nanjing Automobile group. Imagine — the quintessential British sports car is now Chinese, or half-Chinese at least. (Well, better Chinese than belly-up, like the eurozone.)
The point is that almost everyone else in Asia expects China’s financial invasion to be followed by military expansionism. Their shared heebie-jeebies are driving them to band together to contain the dragon. Even Vietnam is burying the hatchet of the Vietnam War and getting cosy with America. Politics do make for strange bedfellows, but is their China-phobia justified?
Maybe — history suggests that every rising imperial power has expressed itself with military force: the Greeks, the Romans, the Ottomans, Russia, Germany, Britain, Japan and America. Why would China be different?
As China builds its military and buys more of the world’s resources to fuel its growth, it is less willing to hear Americans telling it what to do (on the US’ quandary re China, read http://money.cnn.com/2010/05/06/news/international/china_america_full.fortune/). It continues to back its pariah buffer state, North Korea;
it continues to incarcerate dissidents; its threats to invade Taiwan have not been withdrawn. And now, it is making serious claims in the South China Sea.
But while China may be a rising power, the US is still a great power — in fact, for all its many faults and failings, still the dominant global power. It still has the stronger military as well as global reach, with allies and bases all over the world, particularly in regions surrounding China (Japan, Taiwan, Korea, India, etc.).
It is determined to keep China hemmed in if it can. So, like it or not, there is a real possibility of eventual conflict in the Pacific between the eagle and the dragon, as many fear.
Like Indonesia, Australians know that if an attack comes, it will be from the North as in World War II (invasion via Antarctica might be a bit tricky). This means that a “love triangle” between the US, Australia and Indonesia has its own natural geopolitical logic.
Indonesia is of increasing strategic importance to the US because it’s the obvious leader of a regional neutral block. It also controls three vital deep-water passages between the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean and the Pacific: the Lombok, Malacca and Sunda Straits.
Australia is also a natural ally of Indonesia because of the similarities between them — yes, that’s right, I did say similarities. Unlike China, both are multiparty democracies and both have open economies (and have signed free-trade deals with each other).
And whatever misgivings Indonesians and Australians may have about the US, it’s still an open society and a genuine democracy, and China is neither of those things. Shared anxieties about China will make these similarities matter more than differences.
My Chinese calendar says 2012 will be the year of the Dragon. By the looks of it, so will be many other years to come. So Ami was right — start learning Chinese, folks!
The writer Julia Suryakusuma is the author of Julia’s Jihad.