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Us In Asia: A 'non-alignment' Strategy?

By Expert Author: Suba Chandran

As territorial and maritime disputes in Asia have sparked regional cold wars, the United States appears to have adopted a non-aligned strategy to navigate in troubled political space of the continent.

George Washington and Non-Alignment

Non-alignment as a diplomatic instrument of state craft has been known to American Administrations for centuries. Although the term “non-alignment” was not used, the need of such a strategy was first articulated by first President of the United States—George Washington. In his farewell address, Washington warned against the folly of getting involved in the European entanglements.

In order to keep the US out of European quarrels, controversies and collisions, he pleaded that “Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none; or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.”

Three centuries later, as the US recognizes the economic and strategic significance of Asia for its national interests, it encounters myriad Asian quarrels and controversies over “sovereignty” issues. Such disputes are “essentially foreign” to American “concerns”.

Asia Pacific Today and the American Non-Alignment

Turbulence in the Asia Pacific is discernible in Sino-Japanese rivalry over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. The spat over the islands, islets and reefs in the South China Sea between China and five other claimants, such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei threatens to contaminate the cooperative ties of China with these countries. China-Taiwan conflict remains unresolved despite a series of confidence building measures and rising trade and investment ties.

During the Cold War days, Washington shunned the non-alignment foreign policy championed by India and many others. But the strategic compulsions and economic imperatives of the post-Cold War era have tempted the US policy makers to innovate “non-alignment” strategy and apply in the mini-Cold Wars of Asia.

The US political support to the idea of creation of a “Palestinian State” in the post-9/11 incident and building of pressure on Israel to seriously negotiate peace; Washington’s policy of making India a “strategic partner”, while elevating Pakistan’s status as “major non-NATO ally” during the anti-terror operations in Afghanistan; constructing a rock-solid economic partnership with China, while maintaining defence and security ties with Taiwan; giving lip service to multilateral dialogue for resolution of South China Sea disputes, yet conducting joint research with China for oil exploration in the waters of this sea; refraining from backing Japanese claim of sovereignty over Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, but standing by the US-Japan bilateral alliance treaty are some of the prominent illustrations of American non-alignment.

It is true that non-alignment emerged out of a bipolar power structure in the international system. The two poles, represented by capitalist USA and communist USSR, made it difficult for a large number of newly independent countries to take sides in the Cold War. The enlightened self-interest compelled them to pick out a stratagem that would enable them to seek cooperation with both the rival power blocs. The hostility to the idea of non-alignment by both Washington and Moscow often posed acute dilemmas for the non-aligned countries. Since non-alignment was not maintenance of equidistance from the two poles, non-aligned countries’ stances on various cold war related issues were sometimes sympathetic to Moscow and sometimes supportive of Washington. For example, India appeared to have appreciated the US position on the Suez crisis, but sympathized with Moscow’s approach to the Hungarian crisis in 1956.

The United States in the post-Cold War era has no die-hard adversary. Although there is visible decline of the US influence in world affairs and relative rise of the Chinese power, the PRC is no USSR. Up-and-coming superpower China perceives an emerging new containment strategy of the established superpower, the USA.

American strategic community, on the other hand, senses a Chinese project to push US out of the Asia Pacific. Such mutual mistrust has, nevertheless, not sparked a new cold war. Complex economic interdependence is almost certain to preclude a Sino-US Cold War, though cold confrontation seems to be mounting between the two.

China has responded to America’s Asia rebalance strategy by picking up squabbles with most American allies, such as Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and others. But the non-aligned approach adopted by Washington has resulted in growing Chinese assertiveness and dwindling credibility in the US as a security provider. The Asian allies of the US doubt, if Washington would protect their interests at the cost of losing business in China. American non-alignment makes China fear less and America’s allies doubt more about the efficacy of alliance treaties.

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