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The US in Southern Asia: power versus influence April 13, 2010

Posted by sandygordon in : Gordon, Sandy , trackback

Sandy Gordon

The United States and its allies are engaged in two wars in South West Asia.  But this costly involvement does not appear to have won the US and the West the influence they would expect to enjoy in the region. This is not due so much to military factors, but rather to the fact that there are now a number of alternatives to the financial and economic influence of the West.  The most immediate implication of any such decline in influence is likely to be a diminution of the capacity of the West to assert its governance and human rights agendas.

This decline of Western influence was starkly illustrated by the failed attempts of a number of Western powers to influence the Sri Lankan government of Mahinda Rajapaksa in the dénouement of the Sri Lankan civil war in May 2009.  As reported earlier in South Asia Masala, the US and some European powers attempted to bring financial pressure to bear on the Rajapaksa government to allow a humanitarian pause in the fighting to enable civilians to escape the war zone.  Even though Sri Lanka was hard-pressed for cash and had gone cap-in-hand to the IMF, President Rajapaksa was able to ignore Western demands and fight the Tamil Tigers ‘into the ground’.   He could do so largely because of other support from China, Iran and Saudi Arabia.  Such support was unconditional, whereas Western support came garlanded with human rights considerations.

Mr Karzai goes to Beijing.  Source – People’s Daily

We now witness the spectacle of President Karzai resisting US and NATO demands concerning governance by flirting with US competitors, China and Iran.  At the height of his differences with the US over his continuing failure to achieve higher standards of governance, he visited Beijing (his fourth such visit).  He also welcomed US arch-rival, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to Kabul – the ultimate slap in the face to the US and its allies.

According to the People’s Daily,  “China is seen as a key player in an international coalition seeking to secure and rebuild Afghanistan, particularly after US troops pull out.” On his part, and without any apparent sense of irony, the Afghan Foreign Minister hopes “the security situation will allow Chinese investment to operate without any risks…”

A cashed up China, with foreign reserves of an estimated US$2.3 trillion, is active in giving soft loans and developing extractive and infrastructure projects throughout the region.  China’s investment in Afghanistan includes US$3 billion in what is potentially the world’s largest copper mine, located south of Kabul.  But it also has its eye on lucrative iron ore and gas prospects. China is concerned about Afghanistan not just for economic reasons, but also because of its key strategic location in respect of a number of Central Asian countries that ring the sensitive Xinjiang region of China.

China is intensively engaged in building infrastructure in Sri Lanka, supplying arms and giving credit.  It is building deep-water ports in Burma, Bangladesh and Pakistan. It is constructing a gas pipeline from the Burmese coast to China.  These activities have commercial logic for China. But they also provide a hedge in relation to Beijing’s concerns that its key oil supply lines might be threatened or interrupted during possible rising tension with India or the US.  According to reports in the New York Times, China has also become deeply involved in developing Iraq’s oil provinces, under the very noses of the US, as it were.

The recent overthrow of the government in Kyrgyzstan, where the US has two bases of some importance to its Afghan strategy, must also have added to the sense of frustration in Washington.  Although the new Kyrgyz government says the US can keep its bases for the time being, it is also apparently loyal to Moscow.  Reports by STRATFOR say Russia has offered aid and that Moscow is likely to be the final arbiter on whether the US can keep its bases.

To strategists in Washington, it must increasingly appear as if the US is sacrificing ‘blood and treasure’ throughout the region while China, and to a lesser extent Russia, act as ‘free riders’, metaphorically licking their lips and waiting to pick up all the most lucrative pieces.  And treasure is not as readily available to the US as it once was.  The country is spending 4.7 per cent of its GDP on defence while it has a public debt of 87 per cent of GDP.  It also needs to implement costly health reforms and refurbish its struggling economy.  Although the US may be able to negotiate an exit strategy that spares it from the worst horrors of violent jihadi terrorism, it cannot necessarily garner regional influence and economic opportunity over the longer-term.

This situation could eventually cause a shift in US conservative opinion, which up until now has basically supported President Obama’s Afghan surge and its attendant nation-building attempts.  Conservatives could start to reason that, so long as a settlement could be concluded in Afghanistan that would prevent further violent jihadi attacks on the US and its allies, the US should cut its losses on nation building and concentrate instead on the larger game – the emerging competition with China.  Any such conclusion could also dictate a significant shift in the nature of US defence spending – away from the so-called war on terrorism and back to strategic competition.


1. The US in Southern Asia: power versus influence | East Asia Forum - April 20, 2010

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2. The US in Southern Asia: power versus influence | University News & Information Service - Australia - April 23, 2010

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