FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Road to Mandalay

by MICHAEL BRENNER

 

President Barack Obama paid a much heralded visit to Myanmar this week.  This first foreign trip abroad  since reelection magnified Myanmar’s freedom.

 

There seems little else to warrant giving Myanmar top priority. It is geographically remote from any place of strategic importance, it possesses no critical natural resources, it has no Islamic terrorists or even Islamic fundamentalists, and no social reformist movement that threatens American business investments since there is virtually no foreign investment. Indeed, measured by these criteria and accounting for population size, Myanmar logically should figure far down the list of countries deserving Presidential special attention.

 

But then there is China – and China is what it is all about. The Obama administration has launched a multi-pronged strategy to “contain” the expansion of Chinese influence in Asia. That is the spawn of the much ballyhooed “pivot” toward Asia. It is less than a year since the White House proclaimed that it was time to shift the weight and focus of our foreign policy from the greater Middle East to the East Asia. No stunning development demanding urgent action provoked that shift. Nor was there any dearth of unfinished business in the Middle East. The region is convulsed by the aftershocks of the Arab spring, Syria is in the throes of civil war, bloodshed is the order of the day in Gaza, the confrontation with Iran remains fraught with danger, Iraq has been a miserable failure, and our objectives in Afghanistan are as distant as ever despite the Obama surge and the large American forces still fighting there. “Pivot” or not, the Navy has three carrier battle fleets in the Persian Gulf.

 

The vacuity of the notion was glaringly exposed last week.  The President, having ‘pivoted’ to Asia, found himself ‘containing’ China by spending time in a country which has had no strategic bearing on anyone since the 13th century (Siam aside). For four days, the White House did little but loudly cheer on Netanyahu from its distant outpost on the Irrawaddy . Obama himself justified the air assault on Gaza on three occasions. Then, when matters looked to be getting out of hand, Hillary Clinton was pivoted back to the Middle East. The Mursi brokered cease-fire could now be declared a triumph for the U.S., for Clinton and for Obama that confirms our indispensability. The fact that we refused even to talk with one of the parties, Hamas, and therefore could not in fact have mediated, is downplayed by the press corps.

 

Within 24 hours of the cease fire, The New York Times already had a blow-by-blow account of Obama’s personal intervention with Mohamed Mursi to achieve what it labeled a stunning success. The story’s authenticity, as well as its source, was confirmed by telling details as to which Presidential calls to Cairo were made with the President in sweats and which when he wore shirt and tie.  The unhappy truth is that the press corps these days too often seems on the payroll of State’s and the White House’s public affairs offices.  The clear reality that the United States is the big loser in this latest display of America’s bankrupt Middle East policies, and of its inept diplomacy, is lost in the celebration.

 

“Pivot” clearly is nothing more than a public relations gesture that signals a belated recognition that the rise of China deserves more diplomatic “quality time” than it has been receiving during the long decade of our all-consuming “war on terror”.  The United States as a global power with self-defined interests at every point of the compass cannot afford to treat regions in serial fashion – interspersed with long periods of neglect. Foreign policy in high stakes international politics is not like the movements of a ballerina on point.  Not to keep constantly in view the compelling reality that world affairs in the 21st century will be determined mainly by the terms of accommodation between the U.S. and the P.R.C. is a grave act of non-feasance. And if the administration is simply incapable of handling multiple challenges simultaneously, it should get a new foreign policy team and/or scale back our ambition to exercise global dominion.

 

Washington is now vexed by what it sees as Chinese attempts to extract deference from its neighbors in East and Southeast Asia. Its extraordinary economic expansion is making it the hub of the world’s fastest growing region. That enables it to exercise a good measure of influence on the policies and overall  orientation of others. Concretely, it has made aggressive claims of suzerainty over disputed isles in the South China Sea located far from the mainland which are possibly rich in badly needed fossil fuels. China’s behavior has generated consternation in Jakarta, Hanoi, Manila, Singapore and Kuala Lampur.  A separate dispute with Japan also has stoked tensions.

 

The Obama response is something called “push-back.”  It entails taking steps to credit the idea that the United States will remain politically engaged in Asia – thereby firming up regional resistance to kow-towing to Beijing. That is reasonable. Unfortunately, though, we are taking the unproductive tack of making that statement mainly by trying to forge a series of military agreements with countries on China’s periphery –namely Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore, Australia and ironically Communist led Vietnam. There is stale quality to this strategy of ringing China with American bases. It is a remake of the ill-fated 1950s SEATO project with the plot line borrowed from the Cold War.

 

China’s influence in the world will not be demonstrated by direct assaults on the independence of its neighbors. Anyone familiar with Chinese history will realize that this never has been their modus operandi. Certainly today, when the currency of world power is primarily economic, that should be evident. While the United States is playing the outdated game of balance-of-power, China is acquiring control over critical mineral assets in South America, Africa and even Afghanistan. It is investing heavily in petroleum leases and buying up energy companies. It also is acquiring vast agricultural tracts around the world (including Canada) the ensure its food supply while establishing a central place in  international markets.  As to monetary power, Beijing possesses enormous reserves of hard currency, close to $2 trillion – more than half in the form of Treasury bonds. It thereby insulates itself from American pressure and retains the means itself to play a growing role in managing the world’s financial system on terms acceptable to Beijing.

 

What is the American counter move?  The Obama administration devised a scheme for a proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership that would exclude China. This magical sleight of hand is grounded in the  imaginations of American policy-makers but not in reality. That was driven home on Tuesday in Phnom Penh where the ASEAN countries and China announced plans for a comprehensive trade agreement involving other major Asian trading nations (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership).This grouping will not include the United States. The announcement came the very day that Obama was in town attending an East Asia summit.

 

None of these hard truths will be qualified by Obama’s fleeting stop in Yangon.  Perhaps he should have booked a night in Mandalay where “the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay!”

Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.


Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.

More articles by:
July 25, 2016
Sharmini Peries - Michael Hudson
As the Election Turns: Trump the Anti-Neocon, Hillary the New Darling of the Neocons
William K. Black
Doubling Down on Wall Street: Hillary and Tim Kaine
Quincy Saul
Resurgent Mexico
Ted Rall
Hillary’s Strategy: Snub Liberal Democrats, Move Right to Nab Anti-Trump Republicans
Patrick Cockburn
Erdogan is Strengthened by the Failed Coup, But Turkey is the Loser
Robert Fisk
The Hypocrisies of Terror Talk
Lee Hall
Purloined Platitudes and Bipartisan Bunk: An Adjunct’s View
Binoy Kampmark
The Futility of Collective Punishment: Russia, Doping and WADA
Nozomi Hayase
Cryptography as Democratic Weapon Against Demagoguery
Cesar Chelala
The Real Donald Trump
Julian Vigo
The UK’s Propaganda Machinery and State Surveillance of Muslim Children
Denis Conroy
Australia: Election Time Blues for Clones
Marjorie Cohn
Killing With Robots Increases Militarization of Police
David Swanson
RNC War Party, DNC War Makers
Eugene Schulman
The US Role in the Israeli-Palestine Conflict
Nauman Sadiq
Imran Khan’s Faustian Bargain
Peter Breschard
Kaine the Weepy Executioner
Weekend Edition
July 22, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
Good as Goldman: Hillary and Wall Street
Joseph E. Lowndes
From Silent Majority to White-Hot Rage: Observations from Cleveland
Paul Street
Political Correctness: Handle with Care
Richard Moser
Actions Express Priorities: 40 Years of Failed Lesser Evil Voting
Eric Draitser
Hillary and Tim Kaine: a Match Made on Wall Street
Conn Hallinan
The Big Boom: Nukes And NATO
Ron Jacobs
Exacerbate the Split in the Ruling Class
Jill Stein
After US Airstrikes Kill 73 in Syria, It’s Time to End Military Assaults that Breed Terrorism
Jack Rasmus
Trump, Trade and Working Class Discontent
John Feffer
Could a Military Coup Happen Here?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Late Night, Wine-Soaked Thoughts on Trump’s Jeremiad
Andrew Levine
Vice Presidents: What Are They Good For?
Michael Lukas
Law, Order, and the Disciplining of Black Bodies at the Republican National Convention
David Swanson
Top 10 Reasons Why It’s Just Fine for U.S. to Blow Up Children
Victor Grossman
Horror News, This Time From Munich
Margaret Kimberley
Gavin Long’s Last Words
Mark Weisbrot
Confidence and the Degradation of Brazil
Brian Cloughley
Boris Johnson: Britain’s Lying Buffoon
Lawrence Reichard
A Global Crossroad
Kevin Schwartz
Beyond 28 Pages: Saudi Arabia and the West
Charles Pierson
The Courage of Kalyn Chapman James
Michael Brenner
Terrorism Redux
Bruce Lerro
Being Inconvenienced While Minding My Own Business: Liberals and the Social Contract Theory of Violence
Mark Dunbar
The Politics of Jeremy Corbyn
Binoy Kampmark
Laura Ingraham and Trumpism
Uri Avnery
The Great Rift
Nicholas Buccola
What’s the Matter with What Ted Said?
Aidan O'Brien
Thank Allah for Western Democracy, Despondency and Defeat
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail