The Asian stage for the American show
The Americans had their eye on Asia since Commodore Perry opened Japan in 1853, but now they have their heart set on this distant continent. It's clear as daylight that a quiet showdown is imminent, if not already at work. The United States signed a 10-year defense framework agreement with India last month. Japan is trying to reel in Russia. The purpose is to build a bulwark against China, and isolate it in its own backyard.
History will vouch that such manoeuvrings go back in time. The rise of Athenian power and the fear it inspired in Sparta constituted the true cause of the Peloponnesian War lasting from 431 BC to 404 BC. This observation of Thucydides became famous as "The Thucydides Trap." If you put China in place of Athens and the United States in place of Sparta, that ancient trap is returning with a vengeance, this time in Asia. The conflict between ruling and rising powers has, most of the time, led to war.
Underneath the surface of sublime diplomacy are surreal tensions. The United States wishes to thwart China in its ambition to become a global power. India has its own territorial concerns in Arunachal Pradesh besides countering the Chinese predilection for Pakistan. Japan is locked in a bitter dispute with China over the South China Sea islands, which were annexed by Japan during World War II.
In the coming years, if not months, the resulting rift system is likely to split the continent. While the United States has united with India and Japan, Pakistan and Myanmar appears to have sided with China. North Korea's position doesn't need a second guess. Russia, which is currently holding an eight-day naval exercise with China in the South China Sea, might sit on the fence for sometime before making up its mind. Other Asian countries will eventually fall in line with one side or another. Long-time US ally Philippines has a new president, who not only publicly insulted the US president in a recent outburst, but also asked the American forces to leave his country.
It's not rocket science that the theatre of confrontation is shifting to Asia. The crux of this confrontation is cross-directional. China is pivoting west with its ambition to expand its reach across the continent and towards Europe. The United States, on the other hand, is pivoting east. It's convinced that its future should be entwined with the Asian prosperity instead of being sucked further into the quagmires of the Middle East.
To cut to the chase, the real fight is over energy and markets. The US goal is to kill two birds with one stone, which is to contain China. First, it wants to ensure that China doesn't get to flex its muscles in Asia. Second is to cut down to size the Chinese ambition to march its influence overseas.
China desperately needs Europe and the Middle East for markets and oil. Experts believe it's now more concerned over America's superior sea power that can squeeze its oil supplies. The American armada dominates the Pacific and Indian Oceans and every body of water in between, particularly the two choke points in the Straits of Malacca and the Persian Gulf.
In its desperate bid, China is heavily investing in West Asia to create a sophisticated network of roads, railways and pipelines stretching home from the oil and gas fields of northern Iraq and Central Asia. Besides developing overland alternatives, China is also building a navy and has invested in the so-called "string of pearls" strategy of building maritime centres in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Maldives, and Somalia to protect its sea routes to Africa and the Middle East. The seaport China attempted to build in Sonadia in Bangladesh has been apparently pushed back under the US and Indian persuasions. Japan is now going to build that seaport in Matarbari as an affront to the Chinese option.
In 1941, the "sleeping giant" that the USA was, was drawn into the war by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. It was a time when the world was smarting from the excesses of Nazism. Between 1947 and 1991, the US engagement spanned every continent mostly due to the spread of communism. The rallying cry in today's world is the fight against terrorism.
The US has military presence in Japan, South Korea and the Philippines. It's possible the Americans will look for more touchpoints to strengthen its military buildup in Asia. The defence pact with India has already secured a new destination.
As contenders vie for control, this continent is heading for turmoil. Terrorism will escalate, countries will vacillate, and politics will fluctuate. Lives will be lost, institutions will be tossed, and humanity will be debased. Asia must brace for rocky times ahead marked by bloodshed and chaos.
The writer is Editor of the weekly First News and an opinion writer for The Daily Star.
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