When Pentagon head Chuck Hagel dropped into Southeast Asia this past weekend to spin Washington’s pivoting, no one was exactly expecting a Moses-like moment.
At the Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore – Southeast Asia’s top
annual security conference – the usual cascade of euphemisms
adorned the perennial notion of the US as a benign superpower.
Something as crude as “pivoting” was hardly mentioned; it was
rather a matter of “strategic balance”, or “rebalancing”
involving the “Indo-Pacific”.
The fact remains that the Pentagon up to 2020 will transfer more air power, including tactical aircraft and bombers; US Army troops and Marines; and a variety of high-tech weaponry to the Asia-Pacific – no matter its downsized budget. And then there’s 60% of the US Navy, which translates as eight large vessels more than the current deployment. It seems oh so harmless when such fire power is dissolved into a Hagel-esque “we prioritize developments of our most advanced platforms to the Pacific.”
Anybody visiting Changi Naval Base would have been able to see
the tip of the “rebalancing”; the USS Freedom, an April arrival,
the first of four Littoral class combat ships to be permanently
stationed in Singapore.
The rebalancing is being spun as Washington “resuming” its
Asia-Pacific “role” after a draw down from the spectacular
defeats at both Iraq and Afghanistan. It should not be
interpreted as containment of China, of course; according to
Hagel, this is only happening because “the arc of the 21st
century will be shaped by events here in Asia.”
That should explain the Pentagon being so gung-ho on “new concepts” and “game-changing capabilities” to ensure “freedom of action”. The question is, freedom for whom.
China was present at the Shangri-La dialogue, via Major General Qi Jianguo, deputy chief of the general staff of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). He did not mince his words; “China is not convinced” the pivoting is not about containment. “How can you assure China? How can you balance the two different objectives - to assure allies, and to build a positive relationship with China?”
Hagel did not answer, resorting to the cliché-laden “US welcomes a strong and emerging and responsible China”. He did evoke dialogue, to reduce “the risk of miscalculation, particularly between our militaries.”
But Qi Jianguo was forceful – insisting bilateral dialogue
between China and individual Southeast Asian nations was always
on, and dismissing the possibility of UN arbitration to solve
territorial disputes with the Philippines, as advocated by
Filipino Defense Minister Voltaire Gazmin. Both Philippines and
Vietnam forcefully reject Beijing’s mapping of the South China
Sea in terms of future oil and gas exploration.
Beijing can clearly identify how Washington is frantically
turbo-militarizing relations with most Association of Southeast
Asian Nations (ASEAN), even Myanmar. No wonder the US will host
its first meeting with ASEAN defense ministers next year in
The day Hagel landed in Singapore I was at another conference at
the Four Seasons, hosted by the Middle East Institute of the
National University of Singapore. That’s where I pivoted into an
insightful conversation with Professor Wu Bingbing, a
vice-director of the School of Foreign Languages at Peking
University and a top Chinese Middle East expert.
US 'Think Tank land' revolves around a consensus regarding the pivoting, which is supposed to accomplish three objectives. 1) To allow an “open highway” from the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea (that’s already the case). 2) To “defend the chokepoints” (assuming “evil” Iran will try to close Hormuz, which it won’t). 3) To prevent one power to become a hegemon (a not so veiled jab at China and to a lesser extent India; only the US is allowed to be a hegemon.)
Against all that hype, Professor Bingbing detailed how the
Beijing leadership sees the pivoting – as aggressive as it may be
- essentially as a diversionary tactic; Washington, he said, will
never pivot away from the Middle East.
Bingbing stressed how, in the near future, China, India, Japan
and South Korea will, among them, become the largest energy
importers from the GCC 'petro-monarchies'. Beijing regards the
Middle East as “a strategic platform to reshape is relations with
the West”, including political/diplomatic interests as in
Xinjiang and Taiwan. And it’s important commercially because it’s
a large market for China.
As much in the Middle East as in Southeast Asia, Beijing intends
to develop these relations based on “sovereignty,
non-intervention, development and peace; regime change does not
solve anything.” As far as the West is concerned, Beijing wants
to increase “strategic trust” and “more cooperation in
international affairs.” Yet he warned “confrontation is
inevitable if the pivoting accelerates.”
He detailed how Beijing, unlike Washington, considers Iran a
“legitimate government”. He stressed, “sanctions don’t work. They
hurt the Iranian population, but they won’t make the economy
collapse. And they are even helpful to develop Iran’s non-oil
sector.” On the nuclear issue, Beijing “acknowledges Iran’s right
to enrich uranium”, as well as its “fundamental role in the
larger Middle East.” A military attack would be “a disaster”; it
would only enable an “axis of chaos”.
Washington would better listen to Bingbing’s clear message; “We cannot give up on Iran. Iran is essential for stability in Central Asia and South Asia. An attack on Iran will create a new paradigm. To defend Iran is a matter of China’s dignity”.
One can already picture Chinese President Xi Jinping delivering
the same message to a pivot-obsessed Barack Obama this Friday
during their California summit. Will Obama listen?
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.