It is shaping up to be a busy autumn in Asia for the embattled Obama administration as it seeks to shore up its strategic interests in the world's most dynamic region.
From Burma to Beijing and Japan to Java, the US is dealing with multiple challenges and trying to re-engage with a region that many felt Washington has not accorded the importance it is due. True, the press of domestic problems has turned the US inwards but as the leading global power it doesn't get 'time outs' in maintaining its strategic interests and can ill-afford a sporadic approach.
Obviously the rise of China has profound consequences for the region and American interests, and thus managing this power shift is a key dilemma. It is one thing to talk about cultivating China as a stakeholder in the international system, but quite another to cede what it takes to accommodate Chinese aspirations and convince Beijing that buying into the prevailing US-led status quo makes sense.
Burma's military junta orchestrated sham elections on 7 November, the first in 20 years. The military has held power for 50 years and has a squalid record in promoting economic and political development, has done little to mitigate the problems of poverty that engulf its people and has one of the worst human rights records in the world.
The junta ignored the results of the 1990 elections in which almost everyone voted for Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy. This time the junta took no chances with the popular will, preparing its poll-rigging by staging a dress rehearsal in May 2008 soon after Cyclone Nargis devastated the delta region. A new constitution was 'approved' in that referendum by 93 per cent of the voters, an implausibly high number that is widely dismissed owing to credible reports of extensive fraud and intimidation.
Aung San Suu Kyi remains under house arrest and has been barred from running for office under the new constitution while 25 per cent of the seats in the 440-member assembly are reserved for the military. The junta leader, Than Shwe, and other top ranking officers changed their mufti for suits, allowing them to stand for election as civilians, but there is no question of Burma's military relinquishing control of political power as happened in Indonesia when president Suharto resigned in 1998.
Will the fraudulent elections in this 'discipline flourishing democracy' provide enough of a fig leaf for nations around the world to resume normal relations with Burma? Probably not. After all, the newly elected government is run by the same cast of characters that shot and tortured monks in the 2007 Saffron Revolution and impeded relief efforts to victims of Cyclone Nargis.
Certainly many prominent experts are advising Washington to remove sanctions and not support a UN investigation of crimes against humanity, arguing that a more conciliatory approach would vest the US with more leverage to shape the course of post-election developments.
The Obama administration has a pragmatic foreign policy and that is why it has pursued selective engagement with Naypyidaw's thugs, but it has rightly not averted its eyes from the nature of those who rule Burma and what they have wrought. Targeted, smart sanctions are not about regime change, but rather repudiate an odious government while sending an important and welcome message to the Burmese people that they are not forgotten.
Some members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are frustrated with its discredited policy of constructive engagement because it has become a threadbare cover for business as usual. Indeed over the summer Indonesia was openly critical of Burma at an ASEAN meeting and shares the Philippines' concern that Burma is a stain on ASEAN's reputation and its avowed commitment to improving human rights. In this context, US pressures are welcome in the region. Support for an investigation into crimes against humanity is also a sensible measure for ratcheting up pressure on the government and sending a useful message about accountability.
The 'unhappening' of atrocities within Burma does not have to be replicated elsewhere. Those who favour a more conciliatory approach labour under the illusion that the Burmese government would accommodate a working relationship with Washington that would make a difference. ASEAN, China and India have long been actively engaging and coddling Burma with no apparent positive impact so why should Washington imagine it can make a difference where others have demonstrably failed? The Obama administration should maintain its selective engagement and wield both carrots and sticks in nudging Burma to reform and positioning itself to tap opportunities that may emerge.
There is the China angle and Burma represents one in the string of pearls Beijing is using to extend its influence and project its power into the Indian Ocean. China is Burma's biggest backer, the rogue twin of North Korea. Anti-Chinese sentiment among Burmese is high, however, and the leadership grew up fighting Beijing-sponsored communist guerillas, so there is not a lot of trust. And India is vying for influence as a useful counterweight, meaning that the strategic risks and stakes in Burma for Washington do not merit getting into bed with thugs.
When President Obama met with Hu Jintao in 2009, it seemed that a strategic partnership was within striking distance, but since then mutual suspicions have taken the wind out of those sails.
Certainly there is considerable stabilising ballast in bilateral relations, but squabbles over currency, trade imbalances, arms sales to Taiwan, the Dalai Lama and diplomatic initiatives regarding North Korea and Iran are amplifying distrust stemming from China's large military modernisation over the past two decades amid limited transparency.
Strategic trust and co-operation have suffered and there are legitimate doubts about the ability to manage bilateral differences without destabilising the relationship. It appears that strategic thinking is racing to catch up with quickly evolving realities, which range from energy security and conflict resolution to economic policies, Google and regional institutions.
Simmering tensions carry the seeds of conflict and undermine global stability. As Henry Kissinger recently said, "The DNA of both countries could generate a growing adversarial relationship." Both governments need to nurture the skills of co-operation and mutual respect, but this is not easy given that both are jockeying to decide who gets to call the shots in Asia.
Since the contretemps between the Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, and the People's Liberation Army Deputy Chief of Staff, General Ma Xiaotian, at the Shangri-La Dialogue held in Singapore last June, relations have gone from frosty to tense. In July at the ASEAN Regional Forum held in Hanoi, the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, stood up for smaller Asian states in their territorial disputes with China, asserting that it is not China's prerogative to decide such disputes in the South China Sea involving the Spratly Islands.
This bold rhetoric citing US vital interests in freedom of navigation, encouraged and welcomed by ASEAN states, was underscored by joint naval exercises in July with South Korea in the Yellow Sea and a very significant port call in Vietnam. Then in September Japan faced off with China over the disputed Senkaku (Diaoyutai) islands, an incident that spiralled into a crisis that has left bilateral ties badly frayed.
The US made clear that it has a dog in that fight, stating that the islands are covered by the US–Japan Security Alliance. China is flexing its muscles in regional waters and asserting its strategic interests, but is frustrated that it is unable to dictate terms to ASEAN and Japan over maritime territorial disputes, partly owing to US backing.
Sino-Japanese relations are also fraying over other simmering resource disputes in the East China Sea, Chinese criticism of Japanese treatment of Chinese workers at its factories on the mainland and currency manipulation.The new Foreign Minister, Seiji Maehara, favours a close security relationship with Washington and will try to repair ties and finesse controversies surrounding US bases in Okinawa. The confrontation with China over the Senkaku Islands strengthens his hand domestically, but Okinawan gubernatorial elections in November will renew pressure on Tokyo to revisit the 2006 roadmap on base relocation. Alliance management will thus remain fraught.
China's blustering overreaction to the arrest of a Chinese fishing trawler captain who rammed two Japanese Coast Guard ships was a strategic blunder that will have lingering effects. Beijing, known for its deft diplomacy, managed to play its strong hand very poorly. Its shrill rhetoric and bullying threats, accompanied by a halt in shipments of critical rare earth metals and arrest of four Japanese engaged in a clean-up of a wartime chemical weapons dump, were revealing. Japan handled the crisis calmly, sensibly releasing the captain, while regional governments got an unwelcome glimpse at an overbearing Beijing.
China's bellicose behaviour over the Spratly Islands has already aroused anxieties in ASEAN while the Senkaku outburst underscores exactly why the region remains eager for the US to bolster its engagement and commitment. Beijing has inadvertently scored an own goal, undermining its soft power charm offensive that sought to reassure neighbours that a rising China is not threatening.
The US is engaging and empowering the regional architecture of multilateral institutions, working hard to overcome the neglect of the Bush era. For the first time, the US participated in the ASEAN Summit and is joining the East Asia Summit, while President Obama plans to attend the APEC conference in Yokohama, a flurry of diplomacy that signals the US is keen to engage Asia as never before. In addition, the US has appointed its first resident ambassador to the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta, again a significant upgrading of relations designed to buttress a key multilateral institution.
Uncle Sam is back with a helpful nudge from China's maladroit diplomacy, but repairing and upgrading Asian relations depends on sustaining deft engagement, and that must include Beijing.