Circle of Democracy?

November 3, 2010 at 9:03 pm | Posted in democracy, international relations, Political Economy, world politics | Leave a comment
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President Obama’s 10-day trip to Asia this month comes at a time of increased tensions between China and its neighbors in East Asia over off-shore territories and increased military spending by the Chinese government. This has provided the US government with a wedge to ‘re-engage’ with Asia and promote a ”circle of democracy” between India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, and the United States. ‘Democracy’ is a warm fuzzy word that is hard to oppose but a closer examination of the nascent alliance is disconcerting

Territorial disputes in the South China were cast in sharp relief in early September when a Chinese fishing trawler fishing along the coasts of Senkaku Islands (called Diaoyu in Chinese and claimed by Japa, Taiwan, and China) collided with Japanese Coast Guard vessels. The hawkish Japanese Minister of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism. Maehara Seiji ordered the Coast Guard to arrest the captain of the Chinese trawler, Zhan Qixiong. Maehara’s actions may have propelled him to the Foreign Ministry within a fortnight of this incident, but his hawkishness prompted a vigorous Chinese response. They cancelled, as Peter Lee notes, scheduled bilateral talks on undersea oil and gas exploration and airline flights. Travel agents were instructed not to accept reservations by Japanese tourists and embargoed exports of rare earth oxides to Japan as well as detaining four employees of a Japanese firm on charges of espionage. Eventually, the Japanese Prime Minister had to step in and order the release of Captain Zhan. However, humiliating this incident may have been to Japan, it provided a windfall to the United States as China’s neighbors were increasingly alarmed by Beijing’s willingness to use its military and economic clout to advance its interests.

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This disquiet among the small East and Southeast Asian states was aggravated by rising Chinese military expenditures–though these are still far smaller than US outlays on the military. Nevertheless, the expansion of the Chinese navy and the fact that China now has an aircraft carrier under construction has raised concerns amongst its neighbors and Vietnam is now seeking closer relationships with its old adversary–the United States. Vietnam is also concerned by Chinese dam constructions that could limit the flow of water downstream to the Mekong River–and the US has exploited the opportunity by creating a Lower Mekong Initiative.

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Meanwhile, after having initially made some overtures to China, the Obama White House change tack and adopted an increasingly antagonistic posture to China: even though the United States refused to commit to greenhouse gas emission limits, it demanded that China give up the favorable terms it had secured in the Kyoto Protocol. It demanded that China sacrifice its energy security and enlist in a Western crusade against Iran. And it is being pressured to appreciate its currency to resolve US current account deficits.

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This set the stage for the United States to forge an alliance in Asia with India, Indonesia, Japan, and South Korea–and despite protestations to the contrary, all alliances are against another power–and in this case, China. Dubbed the ‘circle of democracy,’ it is attractive to Japan and South Korea–two American client states without a strong military presence–and cautious of China flexing its muscles; to Indonesia which has a large Chinese minority that has been persecuted, most notably in 1950, in 1965-67, and again in 1997-98; and to India seeking a global role. Rhetorically, it is billed as an alliance of democracies ringing an ‘authoritarian’ state.

Democracy is a warm, fuzzy word and one can no more be against democracy than against a teddy bear! And yet, democracy masks a variety of practices–mere electoral democracy does not translate into substantive rule of the people. In the United States, elections have become so expensive that politicians are deep in the hock to moneybags and hence there is little difference between the two parties. In India, it has not translated into power to the people, and more recently even the freedom of the press has come under attack, especially in Maharashtra by the Shiv Sena where they pressured the Vice Chancellor of Bombay University to withdraw Rohinton Mistry’s book, Such a Long Journey, from the prescribed list of books even though neither the protesting Sainiks nor the Vice Chancellor had read it!

For the US, President Obama’s visit to India has a clear objective: to sell advanced fighter planes and other arms to India–along with India’s indigenously developed aerial reconnaissance capabilities (AWACS), it will allow India to project its power regionally in support of US objectives–but not to seriously obstruct the United States. The US economy, despite projected Indian purchases of planes and weaponry remains weak and unable to sustain its imperial role. Its unparalleled nuclear capabilities have been shown to be useless in the wars in actually has to fight–in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Indian Ocean is a crucial trade route–some 70 percent of the world’s oil passes through it and a large and growing part of world trade. And it is a arena where the Chinese are increasingly active–building naval base in Gwadar in Pakistan near the Straits of Hormuz and building alliances with Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Mauritius, Here, the US seeks to court India as a subordinate ally–and last year US forces trained more with the Indian military than with the militaries of any other state–to perform ‘low end activities’ for the US: search and rescue, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief. high-value cargo escort–so that the US can concentrate on the ‘high-end’ activities.

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