America's Sphere of Influence: Retaking South-East Asia
Previously published on May 16, 2010
Although the US economy shrunk under the Global Recession of 2008-2009, the Chinese markets continued to expand at a much slower rate. As China strengthens its image, America spends its military and diplomatic capital on a waning War on Terror as it over-leverages its monetary system to contain the Recession. If these trends hold true, the power of the United States will continue to be on the decline as China grows stronger. Looking at China's immediate sphere of influence, Southeast Asia represents the future of US supremacy and Chinese sovereignty.
The United States has long treated Southeast Asia in a rather traditional manner by rewarding nations, which espouse policies we find conducive to our way of life, with economic partnerships and those, which do not, with sanctions. This form of limited engagement has served America fairly well since the failure of the Vietnam conflict and during the decline of Communism. Unfortunately, China's rise as a superpower and the de-democratization of nations like Russia weakens the effectiveness of sanctions, as these governments often depart from the consensus of the international community.
This means the US must find ways of resolving conflicts and reengaging defiant nations; otherwise, America's relative power will decline further. Since the Cold War, world power has shifted from a dipolar state to an arrangement where the US was the sole superpower with true sovereignty; however, it has since diverged into a multipolar struggle toward resovereignization. The ability of a governing body to exercise its will without external influences interfering, i.e. sovereignty, is an essential element of a country's ability to set policy and determine its moral character.
The United States, as the Twentieth Century's global empire, has used its dominance to benevolently shape the international community to more or less the benefit of everyone. While resovereignization means little to the moral character of most nations in the global community, others have rejected the Western doctrine. The United States established itself as a global superpower, because the dominance of another expanding power, such as the Soviet Union, would threaten American sovereignty and democracy. In general, might makes right, unless the mighty say otherwise. As the US loses influence in regions like Southeast Asia, China fills the power vacuum, thus other Asian nations could lose what limited sovereignty they had under US dominance.
For allies within the region, this could be a very damaging transition as China is almost assuredly going to reward its allies and allow America's friends to decline in standing, at best. On the flip side, nations neglected or spurned by the US, such as North Korea and Myanmar (Burma), see China as a golden opportunity. The nuclearization of North Korea and the George W. Bush policy of disengagement provide a clear, bold example of why the US needs to have greater influence in Southeast Asia, even with its trade partners. Alone, America and the West have little leverage to exercise their will without direct military action as disengagement has left few ties to inflict pain on defiant governments.
Unfortunately, China has been reluctant to support Western demands, even those which are in its own interests; only when the threat of North Korea using nuclear weapons became real with continued testing, did China voice concern. Unfortunately, North Korea represents the beginning of a greater danger that can come from China's inaction and America's inability to act. Beyond North Korea, Myanmar orchestrated a heavy crackdown on anti-government protesters in 2007 with an outcry from the international community going unheeded, while the 2008 tsunami relief effort was delayed from entering this medieval country out of fear. Therefore, the West has little, if any, influence over neglected nations.
During the summer of 2009, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Senator Jim Webb (D-VA) made separate trips to Asia in an effort to renew America's relationships. Senator Webb even spent some time in Myanmar where he was able to speak with the military leader Than Shwe and jailed political leader Suu Kyi. In addition, he successfully negotiated the release of American John Yettaw, who was sentenced to seven years hard labor for violating Suu Kyi's house arrest, thus Webb has revealed an opening for the Obama administration to engage the military dictatorship and, hopefully, create change in a very reluctant regime.
With China transforming into a world power to ensure its sovereignty, the US must spend more time in regions like Southeast Asia to guarantee supremacy. Isolating nations, which conflict with US interests, is no longer a viable option. This is not to suggest the West should appease or condone the irresponsible and harmful behavior of nations like North Korea and Myanmar; however, we do need to reengage regions where we have waning influence, especially places where anti-American, anti-Western forces have interests like South America and the Middle East. Southeast Asia represents one region where greater influence could help expand US economic power and give America greater leverage over China as well as immediate threats like North Korea.