US must manage its pivot to Asia in a way that doesn’t isolate China
Obama’s decision to lift arms embargo on Vietnam is the latest in a series of moves that could be perceived as targeting Beijing
Washington had long stipulated that Vietnam must improve its human rights record before the US would lift a decades-old ban on sales of lethal arms to its old wartime enemy. The closely controlled communist state has not done so, but the US has lifted the ban anyway. Improving security ties with Vietnam is seen as more important than safeguarding political rights. President Barack Obama may say the decision is not based on China, but Beijing was the elephant in the room.
The lifting of the ban draws a line under a troubled history between the two former adversaries amid their shared concerns over China’s growing military power and territorial tensions in the South China Sea. Critics say the US has given up one of its bargaining chips in seeking greater freedom of expression and political dissent. China has welcomed the lift for Vietnam’s international relations but a Xinhua commentary warns that it should not be used as a tool to threaten or damage the strategic interests of a third country.
Obama has made closer diplomatic and military cooperation with Asia-Pacific countries – the so called pivot to Asia – a centrepiece of his foreign policy. In his final year in office, the pivot is becoming a more convincing reality, deepening ties with Japan, Australia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Myanmar, Malaysia and Taiwan. Analysts have speculated that Vietnam will grant the US Navy access to its deep-water port at Cam Ranh Bay.
Obama leaves for Japan today for the Group of Seven summit, with some Japanese media speculating that a joint communique may indirectly criticise China. Given that in politics perception is often reality, if the US were seen to be actively trying to contain China that cannot be good for trust between the two superpowers, or for the region. Moreover, the Philippines and Vietnam are very much developing economies that cannot afford to get involved in an arms build-up without diverting resources at the cost of social and economic investment. It is a worry that a lot of emphasis appears to have been placed on military aspects of the pivot. A containment policy that isolates China will not work.
Regionally the US pivot is not a bad counterbalance for most Asian countries, given that a perception of a lack of transparency in China’s South China Sea strategy arouses unease. But it has to be managed in a way, including continuing Sino-US dialogue, that avoids conflict and creates a stability conducive to China tackling reform and integration with the global community.