So the United States wants to re-engage the Asia Pacific region.
In the wake of the wind-down and relative failure of the war/post-war periods in Iraq (ok – let’s call it a defeat: the dominant power in that region is now Iran, the insurgents are either running parts of Iraq or hold the power balance in the government, the country is ethnically cleansed, there is still no fucking electricity and the US have been forced to huddle their remaining troops in client gulf states) and the impending drawdown in Afghanistan, likely with similar results to Iraq, the United States has now decided to transfer part of and flex its not inconsiderable muscle in the region, arguing that it is making up for lost time as it lost focus over the past decade.
Despite the facade of unity at the recent Bali ASEAN leaders gig, there is clear and obvious disquiet across much of the region. Regardless of this, it’s pretty obvious that the US intends to do what the US intends to do and to hell with most everyone else. As always.
There are several possible reasons I can think of.
Firstly the United States is now a permanent war economy – it maintains a massive military machine, a vast intelligence apparatus and an even bigger military-industrial and support base and needs to continue maintaining these in order the forestall a crash that would dwarf 2008 if it didn’t. Millions of people and countless industries are part of this war economy and are dependent on the United States either being at war or having an armed confrontational posture around the world.
Secondly – distraction, and the need to be seen to be doing something to counter the downturn and those who are popularly perceived to be in large part responsible for it. The economic mess they are now in is a stinking quagmire that is not improving despite billions thrown at it, seems resistant to the change in fundamentals necessary, and has mutated into confused desperation as the dream which was never supposed to crumble, falls apart. That desperation has manifested itself in several ways: the nutty and contradictory Tea Party, which brings together dangerously all the arch-conservative, paranoid, ill-informed and extremist elements that have been gathering pace in the USA in recent decades (or, in the case of the national delusion they call American Exceptionalism, has festered for many decades), the OWS movement, and the boogie man.
The boogie man used to be Soviet Russia (and ‘Red’ China), then it was radical Islam (which still has its claws in the national psyche) and now it’s just China. China is the boogie man. And that’s number three: confront the boogie man and we’ll all get our jobs/industry/global standing (as conferred on us by American Exceptionalism) back. It’s an extended real world Truman Show scenario – with the US playing Truman and the rest of the world looking in, and it runs all through Congress – both sides – and the administration: it’s Chinese currency manipulation/protectionism/bad labour practices/aggression/price fixing. Insert any or as many of those as you wish. Address those and the American dream returns.
So when Obama makes a profoundly arrogant – racist – statement instructing China to “play by the rules”, he is effectively telling the most populous and increasingly developed nation in the world to do as they are told; we are Americans, you are are Asiatics, we make the rules, you have no right to do that, and to enforce our self-anointed role as the global rule-maker we’ll flex our military muscles at you as and where necessary.
The East would be so much easier if it were all still Suzie Wong.
However, there are problems with this. Firstly the United States hasn’t been a peacemaker in the region since the end of the Korean War. Its adventures took the lives of millions in South East Asia in the 50s, 60s and 70s including handing Cambodia to Pol Pot and then supporting him when the Vietnamese tried to resolve the horrors. It played an active part in the coup that overthrew Sukarno in Indonesia, the aftermath of which was the extended horrific massacre of up to a million people some of whom were condemned on a CIA provided hit list, plus a 30 dictatorship. It then supported and armed the invasion of East Timor and has recently begun working with the same Indonesian special forces currently ‘suppressing’ the West Papuan independence movement with violence.
The only part of Asia where you could argue that it’s maintained the peace is Korea.
Its military sits permanently at the Chinese sea-border, nuclear armed, and continually prods at their territory with spy planes and vessels in a way that they would never tolerate at home if it were to be reversed. It continually encourages the disputes between China and other South East Asian nations in the South China Sea where it is an agent provocateur fomenting mischief.
Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand repeatedly rebuffed its attempts to join the joint task force guarding the Straits Of Malacca. It’s the last thing any of them want.
Secondly, the idea that the US military can, to quote Obama, “fulfil its commitment to the entire Asia-Pacific region” by military posturing is absurd. The only time the US and China entered into a shooting war the US was routed, all the way down the Korean peninsula, and it was only able stop the shooting by using all its massive military muscle to force a stalemate that continues to this day. And that was against a peasant army with a massive disparity in arms and technology. At the end of 2011 no such disparity exists and world’s largest military – in numbers – would likely rout any conventional US military assault or threat again.
Thirdly, it’s not your region – look at a map – go away. At least that seems to be the unspoken in large parts of the region. It was notable that the Thai government quickly rejected US naval help in the floods -aside from mapping assistance later on, as Hilary rushed into Bangkok. The phrases “Global recession” or “Global Downturn” have huge currency in the west at the moment, but there is no recession in most of Asia, no downturn, quite the opposite. Across the region, despite endless predictions of imminent collapse from the west, everyone is doing quite nicely thank you. The Thai floods have had a huge global impact across a range industries from cars to electronics to food – they hit stock prices in Wall Street and Tokyo – but their $10Bn price tag is but a blip in a growth pattern that is reflected across Asia.
And they want to keep on doing nicely. US bull-in-a-china-shop destabilisation is neither desired nor helpful as Asia comes into its own as an economic powerhouse. The rules of the party have changed and the USA has gone from handing out the dance cards to being a wallflower, albeit an armed one looking for an excuse to bare those teeth.
Bizarrely the agreement is to place 2,500 Marines in Australia, in Darwin. This places them not at the foot of China but squarely underneath Indonesia. How odd. Well not really – I doubt anyone closer to China would have them.
Australia must be rather thrilled to be asked. It already has B-52’s in the Northern Territory from time to time and Australia has long been the junior partner in the Western Alliance desperate to be seen as a major player but never quite getting there, so one can imagine the glee in Canberra when this was agreed.
There was a time when Australia was convinced Indonesia was going to invade and built a multi-billion dollar series of bases across the top of the country to defend against this. Any of the hundreds of thousands of Ockers who have been to Bali could’ve told the military that Indonesia can’t even keep the traffic lights going reliably, let alone transport an invasion force across water and desert. It was absurd and must have caused some mirth in Suharto’s Jakarta (especially as the Australians were also arming his troops on the other hand).
In 2012 the threat posed to the Australian nation by Indonesia is zero.
And so Hillary is going to Myanmar. It is, so the media has been primed to tell us, on the cusp of democracy. It seems nobody has told the generals this – hundreds of political prisoners remain in jail with little movement beyond a token release earlier this year as part of a general amnesty.
Myanmar has been designated ground zero by the USA in the impending confrontation with the boogie man. And sitting across the border – given the US history in South East Asia – it’s very, very scary.
The US attempts to find a client state here is like a page out of the cold war history books, it’s South Vietnam, Guatemala and Cambodia all over again, and without the teeth that give it credibility unless they go nuclear.
And then there are no winners.
Here’s Francis Wade from the Democratic Voice of Burma, in an Al Jaz Op/Ed, giving a more detailed view of all this (and I’d suggest reading the whole thing, it’s pretty powerful):
Ominous signs already suggest that the US will saddle up to repressive regimes in order to realise its overarching priority for returning here, that of containing China and penetrating deeper the region’s markets.
History tells us however that the standards the US sets for its allies are wildly inconsistent and arbitrary. Much of the talk on Burma among White House officials is of “reform”, and less so that of “democracy”, allowing Naypyidaw some flexibility in the benchmarks it is required to meet.
One hopes that Myanmar is slowly heading in the right direction, but it’s worth noting that the civilian leader is a former general and is still heading a government absolutely under the thumb of the same military who have been the bad guys for decades. The 2010 election was almost universally decried as fraudulent, but despite that, the current US administration is sidling up to them as they did so many times with awful regimes in Central America, Africa and the Middle East in the 20th century.
This sort of embrace of ‘reforming’ despotic regimes by the US has a recent precedent too: it was less than a decade back when Libya and its leader were warmly welcomed back into the circle of nations by the last US Administration and the UK as reforming. I’m more confused than ever by the rights and wrongs of the last ten months in Libya but the hypocrisy there is glaring.
This will not end well.