Warnings, one-upmanship and hearts and minds tactics: gloves off in South-East Asia
Just one week after winning a second term Barak Obama is about to make a trip to Thailand, Burma, and Cambodia to bolster support for the US in the region.
During his first stop in Thailand Obama will use his best personal asset, charm, to try to persuade the Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her cabinet to allow the US the use of airbases. With increased "foreign elements" infiltrating into the southern provinces of Thailand, the US is also still very keen to have some presence there to prevent the region becoming a sanctuary and waypoint for further terrorist activity in other areas of the region.
Obama will then travel onto Burma to meet President Thein Sein to try and stem the strong Chinese influence with the government. Burma looks set to be a frontline in the battle between Chinese and US companies for a share the expected growth in business and infrastructure development within the country over the next few years.
Normally such a trip to countries like Burma where there is still a long way to go in human rights and economic reforms would not be made by a US president. However, long-standing US government principles are being tossed aside in the interests of increasing US influence in the region, reminiscent of the Cold War days of the 1960s. Obama has put the new Chinese administration on notice that his coming term will be one of competition in winning the 'hearts and minds' (read handouts) of the nations surrounding China.
However just a few days before Obama is due to arrive in Bangkok and attend the US-ASEAN and East Asia Summits in Cambodia, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, accompanied by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will visit Australia for an annual meeting of ministers (AUSMIN). The Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs Dr. Campbell has told the Australian press the US administration is far from happy about Australian defense spending budget cuts and that Australia must pull its weight and not become dependent on the US.
Campbell highlighted US irritation with Australia, saying "I've signaled that it is important. We count on Australia in so many ways. This is one of the topics that we're going to be engaged closely on."
This is not the first time a US administration has publicly shown its displeasure at Australia, with the deputy Secretary of Defense under the Bush administration Richard Armitage voicing concerns about Australia's defense budget and ability to work with the US. However this time around, voices on Capitol Hill and the Pentagon in Washington are murmuring that the Australian defense spending cuts threaten Canberra’s credibility as an ally to the US - "Australia is freeloading on the American taxpayer."
US officials believe they are doing Australia a favor by stationing US marines and air force in Darwin and that Australia is taking advantage.
For the record, Australia's defense budget has dropped to 1.56 percent of gross domestic product compared to 1.8 percent last year. Ironically the US unease with Australian cuts occurs at a time when the US is doing the same thing.
Australia actually wants a further US escalation of commitment and during Hillary Clinton's visit to Australia will showcase its Techport Maritime Defense Center facilities with the hope of getting a lucrative contract to service the US Pacific Fleet. However this may be unlikely as US law prohibits major ship repairs from being undertaken outside the US. Only voyage repairs can be done, which are currently undertaken with other allies in the region closer to China, Singapore and Japan. It's a pipe dream for Australia as the country has never done well in sharing the spoils of war with the US.
Australia did very poorly in obtaining business contracts in Iraq after the invasion, and even though the country did its fair share of the fighting in WWII, had to almost beg for a term on the UN Security Council earlier this year.
From Australia's point of view the US interest in stationing troops in Australia is a windfall. Mineral exports to China and US troops spending on the Australian mainland is good for the economy. It's also innovative outsourcing for defense needs until the US woke up.
Just two weeks after Australia's Premier Julia Gillard launched the Australia in the Asian Century policy paper, Gillard’s Asian policy advisors probably feel that the rug has been pulled from under them with the bold personal stamp Obama is about to make within the region.
The region is also watching the US browbeat Australia into submission once again. Hardly a sign that Australia is a truly independent country.
In addition US voyage service contracts for the Pacific Fleet have shown Australia to be overtly competing for business in Asia, probably sending the message that Australia is a competitor rather than collaborator with the region.
On the wider regional stage, the Obama administration is going for "first strike" against China in what promises to be an unofficial cold war, which at face value appears to be timed when China is off-guard and focused with its own leadership transition. A very cool move in "one-upmanship" that even the ancient Chinese General Sun Tzu would be proud of.
If this is going to be a second unofficial cold war, then Asian nations this time around will certainly take advantage of the major powers attempts to shift detente with their long shopping lists.
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