South China Sea: Five Questions to a Hegemon

Over the last decade or so, China had stolen a march on the US in Asia, Geoff Dyer wrote in the Financial Times earlier this month: “The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq proved to be a strategic gift for Beijing”. That would be a gift from the Bush jr presidency which the Obama administration appears to be reclaiming now.

You can ring my Belle

You can ring my Belle

And if the officials in Beijing congratulate themselves for the opportunities they had during the past ten years, while the previous administration was busy in Afghanistan and Iraq, they certainly don’t show their happiness in public. On the contrary, China’s leadership is – ostensibly – dropping its illusions, and vocally so, too. If we can believe that their reaction is genuine, they must have reckoned that America’s absence without leave from East Asia was for good.

It seems noteworthy that it was a “leave” during the previous administration’s tenure. America’s return to the Western Pacific suggests that foreign policies follow rules of their own, regardless of the political colors of those who happen to govern in Washington. George W. Bush began his first term by telling Beijing that he would defend Taiwan, “whatever it takes”. He ended his second term on rather friendly terms with the Chinese leadership. The Obama administration began with similarly harmonious policies, but is now returning to a more robust approach in the Far East.

When listening to commanding officer David Lausman of the USS George Washington, stating to Vietnamese dignitaries that

“This great warship is a testament to our country’s resolve and promise that we will always remain throughout all the international waters in the Pacific Rim, trying to help every country together ensuring that it stays a very stable environment”,

you can’t help but think that a pretty big hegemon is holding court there.

Tony Benn, a British Labour Party veteran, has five questions he would ask dictators:

  • What powers have you got?
  • Where did you get them from?
  • In whose interests do you exercise them?
  • To whom are you accountable?
  • How could we get rid of you?

Try and ask these questions not to a dictator, but to the two – real or perceived – hegemons Vietnam might have to choose from when it comes to South China Sea issues. The first four questions could be interesting enough – feel free to find answers to them by commenting -, but to me, the most striking one when it comes to hegemons would be Question #5.

Vietnam proved decades ago that it can get rid of America – even if at a very bloody price. America can rule the seas, but not Vietnam. On the other hand, and only recently, China reportedly told other Asian countries not to discuss the [South China Sea] issue among themselves. As far as I can see, a Vietnamese choice between China and America as allies can only result in welcoming the American navy.

That said, not only Hanoi, but Washington, too, needs to make choices.

President Barack Obama’s actions to maintain the current Pacific order are a step in the right direction, but he still lacks a strategic “roadmap”,

Thomas Wright, director of studies at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs wrote on August 8.

And maybe the American people themselves should ask in whose interest – see Benn’s question #3 – Washington is going to exercise its power there. After all, hegemony can be cheap for those who benefit from it, and costly to the hegemons themselves.

If the balance struck against China’s claims is meant to be sustainable, the division of labor – in terms of regional security – needs to become one based on partnership, and shared responsibilities.

____________

Related
U.S., South Korea announce Yellow Sea Exercise, US Forces Press Service, Aug. 18, 2010
Good Ganbu: Be no Chess Piece, July 29, 2010

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