A New Cold War in Asia?

New Delhi flags.jpg

Raveendran/AFP/Getty Images

A worker removes the US and Indian national flags after the departure of US President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle from New Delhi, November 9, 2010

Is Asia about to enter a new cold war? Accusing the United States of undervaluing the dollar, China has, after its mainly “peaceful” rise, recently assumed an aggressive posture toward its neighbors. In recent visits both to longstanding American allies (Korea, Japan) and to erstwhile enemies (Vietnam, Cambodia), Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has proposed the US as a counterpoint to China. Seeking to match the Bush administration’s landmark nuclear agreement with India in 2005, Barack Obama is also supporting India’s case for permanent membership on the UN Security Council.

The columnist Thomas Friedman interprets such moves as “containment-lite,” invoking George Kennan’s proposal in 1947 that Soviet expansionism “be contained by the adroit and vigilant application of counter-force at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points.” Apparently, such counter-force against China is already being applied. An Indonesian political scientist told the New York Times last week that his government feels the US is putting “too much pressure” on Indonesia and other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) “to choose sides.”

Battered by the midterm elections, and aware of America’s diminished economic clout, Obama himself has been more circumspect in his pronouncements. The US, he said in Indonesia last week, is “not interested in containing China.” But many politicians, journalists, and strategists seem excited by the prospect of a dramatic new standoff, especially as the “war on terror” and the “struggle against Islamofascism”—campaigns deeply shaped by nostalgia for the cold war’s ideological certainties—enter an uncertain phase.

“India’s emergence as a great Eurasian power,” Robert D. Kaplan asserts, “constitutes the best piece of news for American strategists since the end of the cold war.” Charles Krauthammer argues that since China “remains troublingly adversarial,” India “must be the center of our Asian diplomacy.” As it was in the cold war, the front line suddenly seems to be everywhere, requiring ever-greater military and diplomatic commitments. Kaplan, for instance, worries that American withdrawal from Afghanistan would cause the Indian government to look elsewhere for protection against Pakistan, which would presumably gain influence in Kabul. This could mean that, “we lose the prospect of a de facto pro-American India to balance the military and economic rise of China.”

Such ambitious strategizing assumes that, if the US plays its cards right, India will be a pliable American client like El Salvador once was—indeed, Krauthammer anachronistically describes India as America’s “Third World ally.” Measured against this expectation, Obama’s recent visit to New Delhi was a failure. As Vinod Mehta, the editor of Outlook, India’s leading newsweekly in English, reported:

All this American talk of “containing China” and building up India as a countervailing force in Asia to balance the Middle Kingdom’s “new assertiveness” fell on deaf ears in New Delhi. There was some effort to introduce a line in the joint statement to this effect but the PMO (Prime Minister’s Office) and MEA (Ministry of External Affairs) brushed it aside. “Why should India be a cat’s paw for the United States?” was the line. Long after President Obama and other presidents have gone, India has to live and interact with China. We need to do so on our own terms, and not as a proxy in some Great Game.

Mehta amplifies here not only the official view but also a deeper Indian determination to secure a dignified place for their country in the new international order. Just this summer, Indians angrily compared Obama’s shake-down of BP—through the $20 billion fund he asked the company to set up—with the immunity enjoyed by American employees of Union Carbide, who have yet to be held accountable for one of the worst industrial disasters in history: the gas leak from a pesticide plant owned by a subsidiary of Union Carbide that killed nearly 15,000 people in 1984 in the Indian city of Bhopal. These anti-American passions culminated in the passage of an Indian law in August that holds nuclear suppliers liable for damages from an accident, making state-backed Russian and French companies much more likely and able than their US rivals to enter the Indian civil-nuclear industry that Bush’s nuclear deal originally opened up.

Large multi-ethnic democracies like India and Indonesia have to calibrate their national interests carefully. Obama’s flattering words about an India that is no longer “emerging” but has already “emerged” are unlikely to cajole Indian officials into a more flexible position on the stalled Doha round of trade talks. While annoying Pakistan and China, Obama’s advocacy of India for the UN Security Council during his visit to New Delhi did not manage to relax Indian restrictions on American insurance companies, banks, and retailers like Walmart that have long campaigned for unimpeded access to the large Indian market.


A simple you-are-with-us-or-against-us worldview tends to ignore the areas of ambiguity, the gaps between official rhetoric and policy, where many Asian countries have traditionally conducted their foreign relations. Officially non-aligned throughout the cold war, India actually played the rivalries between the United States and the Soviet Union to its advantage; and there is no reason to assume it won’t do the same with China, its largest trading partner, and the United States, its closest military and political ally.

With its majority Muslim population (and a large Chinese minority), Indonesia is even less keen than India to be perceived as de facto pro-American. Like most countries in Southeast Asia, Indonesia has benefited greatly from China’s economic dynamism. In Malaysia, from where I write, Indonesia is envied for its flourishing democracy as well as rapid economic growth. It is unlikely to barter its new prestige for the sake of an alliance with the United States, which pits it against China, Indonesia’s biggest trading partner. In any case, as Singapore’s ambassador to Washington, Chan Heng Chee, puts it, if forced to choose sides, Southeast Asians would rather opt for China.

China’s recent surge of great-power vanity and arrogance is alarming, especially coming after decades during which it shrewdly repaired relations and resolved old border disputes with most of its neighbors. Beijing’s heavy-handedness endangers its own vital economic and political interests in Asia, and there are signs China may be realizing the price.

The real danger is that American talk of containment may get out of hand. In an interview with the New York Review in 1999, George Kennan presciently warned against the dangers of a fecklessly expanding NATO, which, he feared, would complicate Russia’s historic relationships with its neighbors and be perceived in Moscow as a broad anti-Russian alliance. Just as it did in Russia, a similar fear of encirclement may HELP push China into a more severe authoritarianism and paranoid nationalism.

“The Americans don’t necessarily understand the Asian culture very well, and they can be counterproductive,” a senior ASEAN official informed the Financial Times last week. This was also, famously, the problem identified by The Ugly American, the prophetic 1958 novel, later turned into a film, about American exponents of the domino theory in Southeast Asia. The era in which the United States dictated the course of events in the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean is coming to a close.

Obama seems to realize this. During his Asia trip, a number of his policy initiatives, such as the effort to close a bilateral trade deal with Korea, were unsuccessful. Yet he was gracious and clear-sighted in crediting China’s rise to globalization, and admitting America’s relative decline. In the end, he may still need a strategy of containment—against the aspiring cold warriors at home rather than China in Asia.

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