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The elephant in the room

By Gwynne Dyer

Poor old Tony Blair is condemned to spend the rest of his life trying to justify his decision to help George Bush invade Iraq. He was at it again recently, insisting the threat of Islamist extremism is the great problem of the 21st century. Western countries, he said, must put aside their differences with Russia and China in order to “cooperate” in the fight against radical Islam.

President Barack Obama, however, is tending to his real priority in world affairs: deciding whether the US-China relationship will be one of cooperation or conflict. Not that that is the stated purpose of his current Asian tour. Officially he is discussing a free-trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, with three countries that have already joined the negotiations (Japan, Malaysia and the Philippines) and one that probably soon will (South Korea).

It’s a very big deal. The 12 countries on the Pacific Rim that are currently in the negotiation—Canada, the United States, Mexico, Peru and Chile on the eastern side, Japan, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand on the western side—account for nearly 60 per cent of global GDP and over a quarter of world trade. But there is an elephant in the room (or rather, not in the room): China.

China is the second-largest economy in the world and trades extensively with almost every member of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)—but it is not part of the negotiations, or at least not yet. If it is kept out permanently, many consequences will follow.

None of the 12 governments negotiating the deal has said it wants to exclude China. The usual formula is to say China would be welcome to join if it can meet the standards of financial transparency and equal access to domestic markets that are being accepted by the TPP members—but of course it can’t, unless the regime is willing to dismantle the controls on the economy that it still sees as essential to its survival.

Keeping China out of this planned free-trade area, the biggest in the world, is economically attractive to the current members, and especially to the United States and Japan: the TPP would give US and Japanese companies preferential access to Asia’s markets. But the real motive driving the deal is strategic: they are all worried about what happens when China’s military strength matches its economic power.

The Chinese regime insists it has no expansionist ambitions, but it has alienated most of its neighbours by pushing hard on its extensive claims to islands in the East China Sea (the dispute with Japan over the Senkaku/Diayoyu Islands) and to seabed rights in the South China Sea (where it has disputes with Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines). They all want to nail down US support, including military backing, if those disputes flare into open conflict.

The US is willing to oblige. Even before leaving on his trip, President Obama publicly assured Japan the US military commitment to defend Japan included the islands claimed by China. He will doubtless give his hosts in South-East Asia comparable assurances in private about American support in their seabed disputes with China. The TPP is not a military alliance, but it definitely has military implications. That is not to say a great-power military confrontation in Asia is imminent, let alone that China is really expansionist. What drives the process, as usual, is more likely to be the threat each side sees in the power of the other.

Asked in a recent BBC interview about President Obama’s decision to shift US naval forces from an equal division between Atlantic and Pacific to a 60:40 ratio in favour of the Pacific, retired major-general Xu Guangyu, former vice-president of the People’s Libe­ration Army Defence Institute, replied: “How would (the Americans) like it if we took 60 per cent of our forces and sailed up and down in front of their doorstep?... We want to achieve parity because we don’t want to be bullied. It will take us another 30 years.”

Former US assistant secretary of state Philip J Crowley was expressing essentially the same sentiment when, commenting on Obama’s trip, he said, “Many traditional allies...value a strong US presence in the region to balance against an assertive China.”

In other words, it doesn’t take evil intentions to produce a tragedy. In any case, it’s not likely to happen soon. The point for the moment is the strategic balance in Asia is what the US cares about most, not the Middle East or even Russia.

The United States still drops drones on the heads of various bearded fanatics in the greater Middle East, but they are just a nuisance, not a real strategic threat.

Washington has just sent 600 American troops (600!) to reassure allies in eastern NATO countries that are worried about Russian intentions, but it doesn’t really anticipate a new Cold War with Moscow, nor would it feel really threatened if that happened. Russia is not the old Soviet Union, and the US defence budget is ten times Russia’s. The real strategic game is now in the Asia-Pacific region. Which doesn’t mean it’s any less futile and dangerous than it was in the old days.

• Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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