US President Barack Obama left Washington November 5 for a 10 day tour of Asia, stopping first in India, then Indonesia and finally to South Korea and Japan. The trip is occurring soon after another round of US-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue. While the US hasn’t come out and said as much, the Asia tour, which excludes Asia’s superpower China and doesn’t even consider the US’s partner in the region Pakistan, symbolizes Cold War style containment policies, by highlighting a ring of countries around China which are friendly to the US and not all crash-hot with China.
Obama landed first in India where he was quick to praise India’s democratic institutions and flourishing economy, before making a $10 billion arms deal with the emerging power. The deal is ostensibly going to create 50,000 jobs in the US although this is primarily in the defense sector, and is hardly a drop in the ocean of the jobs shipped to India via off shoring, especially in the technology and services sector. Obama also affirmed his ‘fervent’ support for India’s admission into an extended version of the United Nations Security Council.
India’s increasingly aggressive military spending is worrying for both China and Pakistan, who each have border disputes with India. The Kashmir issue, which has been inflamed of late, will likely be on the minds of most Pakistanis who hear of the arms deal-the US is supporting Pakistan’s adversary in its long, on-going struggle over Kashmir. There is little that the US can do to cover this blow to Pakistan, except for a mightily convoluted act of political speechifying (not unheard of), but most are foreseeing US-Pak relations souring because of the visit.
This comes on the back of talk that Russia is in the works to start aiding NATO supply routes into Afghanistan, which would lessen the strategic importance of Pakistan for the US-NATO effort in Afghanistan, perhaps opening the way for a harder US line towards Pakistan once it is no longer the main route of supply into Afghanistan for the US and NATO troops. Russian representative to NATO Dmitri Rogozin announced today that the decision regarding NATO transit via Russia will be made at the November 20th Russia-NATO summit in Lisbon.
Onlookers have been raising eyebrows about why Pakistan wasn’t included on the tour list; however there are a number of valid reasons to not include Pakistan on the president’s Asia tour.
Firstly, there is yet to be any clear delimitation of Pakistan as an Asian country. While India has been enacting it’s ‘Look East Policy’ for many years now, and is clearly throwing its weight into the Asian arena, Pakistan is on the border of what can reasonably be called Asia and moreover in the past has been more inclined to be grouped with its Muslim neighbors to the West-yes it is considered South Asia, but in an Asian tour encompassing mostly South East and East Asian countries, Pakistan is not an obvious country of choice.
A visit to Pakistan is also a far more complex, politically dangerous, and economically unproductive effort for the US than the four countries Obama is visiting.
His overt goal on the tour is to make trade ties – and Pakistan has little to offer in this regard. Plus, the secondary, or some may say the covert primary goal of the tour is to send a very clear signal to China-also excluded from the visit-that the US is serious about reengagement in the region, and that its friends surround China. Pakistan, as a clear friend of China would not serve this purpose also.
Interestingly, analysts within Pakistan are saying that the Asia visit should be considered a wakeup call for Pakistan: that if they considered the countries on the list of the tour, Pakistan most definitely does not belong there, which is, according to security analyst Talat Masood, because of Pakistan’s “own domestic situation.”
Obama headed from India to Indonesia, his home of four-years in boyhood, where he was welcomed both warmly by his political counterparts, and with a little too much heat by protestors with burning Obama effigies and other US symbols. Obama was once again quick to point out the democratic, pluralist sides of Indonesia which most people are seeing as a bid to showcase another important friend of the US on China’s doorstep.
The second leg of the Obama tour takes him to Seoul in South Korea for the G20 Summit and finally onto Japan for the meeting of APEC. On the surface this trip is all about trade and economics: both official meetings at the end of his tour deal predominately with trade issues and economic concerns, and the vast majority of Obama’s talks with India and Indonesia have been about trade and democracy.
But in reality, there is a deeper message being sent by this tour. The countries Obama visited are the four biggest economies surrounding China, and all have, to some extend, a troubled relationship with China. Many analysts are seeing a kind of cold-war mentality in the division of countries into broad groups of ‘ally, partner or adversary’ behind the current US foreign policy and it is especially evident in this visit to Asia. China has not been blind to the similarities between current Asian policy in the US and policies of containment practiced against the USSR.
Obama’s speeches have all been about finding similarities in these Asian countries to the US, and highlighting their qualities which stand in stark contrast to those of China – this is the real underlying intent of the tour, to say to China that “hey, there are these four countries on your periphery which are the US’s buddies-they have large, important economies, and they are on our side.”
For Pakistan the tour is somewhat less of an all-out thumb-to-nose, but more of a signal of the changing relationship Pakistan and the US face. The US is no stranger to turning the tide on Pakistan and the hot and cold relations between the two countries is somewhat of a pattern. However with a new arms deal between India and the US, and the increasing rhetoric coming out of the US that Pakistan is the real harbor for terrorism, this tour could be precipitating a new level of sourness between the two countries. Nevertheless, Obama refrained from all-out criticism of Islamabad while in India, which is a signal that he doesn’t want the relationship to ice over just yet.