War in Afghanistan

Will Obama's Afghan strategy play into China's hands?

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 December, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 December, 2009, 12:00am

US President Barack Obama's Afghan strategy - 100,000 troops and a withdrawal beginning in July 2011 - will demand costly intangibles and some are wondering whether it is here, in East Asia, that Washington will end up paying that bill.

Quagmire in Afghanistan could further play into the hands of an emerging China that is fast challenging the strategic assumptions that have governed East Asia for decades.

Even if the dramatic escalation of 30,000 extra troops goes smoothly, the military, political and diplomatic capital expended will be considerable. And it is not being spent by a fresh, young hopeful, but an exhausted warrior trying to restore his reserves of blood and treasure after two conflicts, and the worst economic crisis in a generation.

Will Afghanistan divert Washington's attention from the more subtle but vital task of dealing with the rise of China and balancing ties across East Asia, where, for decades, it has been the primary military power? Will it divert the energies of US institutions just as they are supposed to be engaging China on an ever-broadening range of issues, from the environment and water management to freedom of navigation?

Then there are the worst case scenarios. Would Afghanistan commitments mean the US could not respond fully to a military crisis in the region, say a conflict over Taiwan or the Korean peninsula? Afghanistan, after all, is now Obama's war.

These are the questions being asked across the region just weeks after Obama staged his first visit to set the tone for what he hopes will be eight years of complex engagement - deepening ties with China while boosting existing alliances and reaching to out to new friends.

No one is pretending China would create that crisis but some believe Beijing would quietly seek to exploit any perceived vacuum.

Dr Ian Storey, a scholar at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, said a sense that the US risked bogging itself down in Afghanistan could embolden Beijing.

'On a strategic level, it might reinforce China's perceptions that the US is a declining power,' he said. 'And I think that, in turn, could make Beijing more assertive in the region. We might see China being more confident about pushing the theme of a new multipolar world like they tried in the 1990s, a world where the US is more of a 'normal' power.'

Already, US military officials describe more frequent encounters with Chinese warships across the region, a presence expected to grow. On the diplomatic front, US diplomats and their regional allies find their Beijing counterparts increasingly assertive.

While Afghanistan might force Washington to draw away from the Pacific theatre - its biggest presence - its important naval engagement with the region was unlikely to diminish, Storey said.

'We can see the US is exhausted,' one veteran Japanese envoy said privately. 'Taking on fresh burdens in Afghanistan leaves us wondering about the response in a crisis. With the best will, it would be a great challenge ... they are already stretched.'

Professor Shi Yinghong, director of the Centre for American Studies at Renmin University, said China would now pay closer attention to developments in Afghanistan.

Although China would avoid publicly commenting on Obama's Afghan decision, Shi said Beijing would be concerned no matter whether America won or lost the war.

'It will be a very distant concern. Beijing will be more immediately concerned if the US loses the war, in this case, its ally Pakistan will be affected, and security in the region will be undermined,' he said. 'If the war is won, then Beijing will be uncomfortable to have so many US soldiers near its border.'

In practical terms, Beijing has appeared content to stand on the sidelines through the war to date. Repeated US requests to exploit bases on the Chinese side of the border for refuelling missions have been refused.

More recently, US officials have requested an opening of the small but strategic Sino-Afghan border to allow troops and supplies to be ferried down the mountainous Wakhan Corridor. The issue was raised during Obama's recent mission to Beijing but has yet to be approved. No offers of hard military support is expected any time soon. Most analysts believe China is unlikely to want to be involved in a war led by US-dominated Nato forces rather than the UN.

But some in the region believe Obama will not be easily diverted. Professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, said Obama had made considerable gains in Southeast Asia compared with his predecessor. He has entrenched ties with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and has taken the risk of engaging Myanmar's junta. 'Despite all the challenges he will face in Afghanistan, I think the track in this part of the world is set ... his administration has done more in a year than Bush did in eight years,' he said. 'We fully expect that will continue.'

Additional reporting by Kristine Kwok