Harry S Obama

The rhetoric coming out of the Republican presidential primary candidates would have you believe that President Barack Obama is actively engaged in a foreign policy whose sole purpose is to weaken America's standing on the global stage.  This is, of course, nonsense.  But it also hides the fact that Obama has been rather consistently engaged in a foreign policy strategy followed by the hero of the Republican Right, Ronald Reagan, who himself was following a policy originally laid down by Pres. Harry S Truman.

That policy is containment.  It was Truman's strategy to deal with Josef Stalin's aggressively expansionist Soviet Union in the aftermath of World War II.  When the Soviet Union looked to the west at the wreckage of Europe, they saw a collection of states that could easily be brought under their control and could serve as a land buffer for the Russian homeland.  Truman saw this too, and could see that an armed conflict between the remaining Allied powers and the Soviets was a distinct possibility, so a line was drawn – some states in the east were ceded to the Soviets, but the rest fell under the influence of the US, the Marshall Plan ensured that their economies were rebuilt, while NATO stitched together their militaries.  For the next five decades, this would be the organizing principle of US foreign policy – the Soviets would have their sphere of influence, but any move to expand beyond the zone established in the 1940s would be aggressively checked by the Americans.

Of course the Soviet Union is now long gone, but that doesn't make the concept of containment any less valid.  And it is the policy that Obama is quietly employing when it comes to the rising power in the early days of the 21st century, China.

China now has the world's second-largest economy.  For the past three decades, China has been content with focusing on economic growth and the construction of modern cities and manufacturing centers.  But in the past few years, China has started to become more militarily aggressive.  China recently made a splash by buying a second-hand aircraft carrier, sent their navy on its longest mission in 600 years to participate in anti-piracy efforts off the coast of Africa, and showed off a satellite-killing missile.  More importantly, China has not shied away from minor skirmishes with their neighbors –  Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines – mostly over ill-defined territorial claims in the South China Sea. 

This hasn't gone unnoticed by Washington. China's neighbors have viewed these developments with some level of alarm, fearing that China could try to impose their will on these long-standing territorial claims with military force.  The United States Navy has cast itself in the role of protector of access to the world's oceans since the end of World War II, a massive build-up by the Chinese could pose a credible threat to this historic arrangement.  In short, Obama found himself confronted by a similar situation to Truman's dilemma – how to check an expansionist power without going to war?

It's not surprising then that Obama would choose to respond with Truman's own time-tested theory.  Direct military confrontation with China is off the table (or at least it is Plan Z in the big bag of foreign policy approaches).  Publicly, the United States will continue cordial relations with Beijing, Chinese-American trade and investment will go on as before as it is in the best interests of both nations, but the US is quietly building relationships with a ring of countries surrounding China.  The message is clear: China can feel free to grow domestically as much as they want, but any efforts at establishing a sphere of influence in the lands surrounding China will be vigorously opposed by the United States, it is not a coincidence that in a recent speech, Obama proclaimed that the United States was a “Pacific nation.”

The announcement at the end of 2011 that 2,500 US Marines were being dispatched to Australia is an example of the subtle way America's Chinese Wall is being built.  The arrangement seemed like a simple exchange between two long-time allies, the Marines were being dispatched to conduct training exercises with their Australian counterparts; but the site of their deployment is the interesting factor here.  The Marines will be based in the city of Darwin, in Australia's rugged northeastern corner – far from the population centers of the southeast, but close to the contentious South China Sea.  It's not a coincidence that Darwin was also the logistical hub for US-Australian forces in their struggle against the Japanese Empire in World War II. 

Myanmar (a.k.a. Burma) represents another step in the US containment policy.  Last year, Myanmar's ruling military junta made a strategic decision; their anti-democratic policies had left them with just one major ally: China.  The Burmese realized that this committed them to a future of becoming a Chinese satellite, selling off oil, natural gas and hydroelectricity to China at whatever rates Beijing felt like paying them.  The only way to avoid this fate was to embark on a path of reform (at least to a degree).  An opening of elections was announced and as a symbol of Myanmar's new path, the nation's most famous political prisoner, Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest.  The United States was quick to exploit this opening, reaching out to Myanmar’s ruling junta, and soon US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was posing for photos with Suu Kyi, a picture unimaginable just a few months earlier.

The US has strengthened or deepened existing relationships with nations along China's southern and eastern flanks: Australia, South Korea, Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam.  To the north, Russia presents a challenge; relations between the United States and Russia are at low ebb.  Here, the US will rely on historic Sino-Russo mistrust and conflicting regional policy goals, along with China's lustful eyeing of the resource-rich, largely unpopulated lands of Siberia, to keep the two from forging a lasting alliance.  This leaves the west as the only missing piece in the containment policy, it should come as no surprise then if in the next year or two, the US finds a reason to extend its Afghan mission beyond 2014.

Also expect for the collection of Central Asian states known as the 'Stans to play a larger role in US foreign policy in the next few years since this would be the direction in which an otherwise contained China would need to move.  Despite public condemnations of Syria's Bashar al-Assad and Libya's Moammar Gadhafi for brutality directed against their own citizens, the US was silent over Kazakhstan President-for-Life is Nursultan Nazarbayev's recent crackdown in the rebellious town of Zhanaozen,when its citizens demanded a larger share of national oil revenues, but the United States has had a lot of practice in looking the other way in the region after years of dealing with Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov, whose regime is noted for its brutality – containment means sometimes dealing with unsavory characters.  Turkmenistan, holder of some of the world's largest reserves of natural gas is probably well-off enough to avoid US influence (of course that would hold true for China as well); it is a different story for their resource-poor neighbors Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.  The United States currently leases Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan as part of the ongoing Afghan mission, but Russia has put a lot of pressure on the Kyrgyz government too not renew this lease, look for the United States to push back on this issue.  Also look for the US to try to deepen ties with Tajikistan, which despite its remote location and lack of resources, recently played host to Sec. Clinton, a sign of the importance the US is placing on this relationship as it works to complete a circle of containment that would make Harry Truman proud.    

Follow Ed on Twitter @EdwardHancox

Barack Obama, Burma, Central Asia, China, US Foreign Policy