There are two missing pieces in the jigsaw of Indo-Pacific geopolitics. One is China's intentions and the other, of the US. The latter's Asia-Pacific policy has meandered over the past five years and is probably the reason that Beijing has played hard and soft with its neighbours - and gotten
away with it.
At the heart of this shifting policy is President Obama's belief that the US is no longer the power it used to be. New powers were reshaping the world's equations, with China at the front. The 'G-2' policy was born of this. Obama sought to come to an understanding with the world's number two power and, as Hillary Clinton noted, America's banker. G-2 horrified India, and the US's Asian allies. If Washington was going to kowtow to China, many feared Beijing being encouraged down a bullyboy path. This fear came true as Beijing resurrected, inflamed and even invented territorial disputes with almost every neighbour.
By Obama's second year, G-2 was a dead letter. "We forgot we were a superpower," said a former state department official. The more Obama tried to embrace China, the more Beijing sought to embarrass him. The Copenhagen climate conference, where China tried to ensure Obama would go home empty-handed, spelt the end of G-2. Nonetheless, India and countries like Japan noted that G-2 fell apart because of Chinese intransigence, not because the US had a rethink.
Emboldened by the steady recovery of the US economy and accepting that it had let its allies down, the 'pivot to Asia' policy was launched - since renamed 'rebalance to Asia'. It is only 20-30% military says the Pentagon. The rest is economic and diplomatic - showing that the US is a predominant Pacific power.
But doubts remain. In geopolitics, credibility takes years to build and days to destroy. The US wavered with the G-2. Its wishy-washy response to a Filipino-Chinese naval stand-off last year aroused scepticism again. New Delhi is among the more derisory about the rebalance simply because Obama has yet to spell out in detail what it means.
US sources say the US-China relationship will deteriorate, with Chinese military's cyber attacks on the US being seen as having crossed a red line in the past year. Obama also believes China violated WTO commitments and is preparing a raft of punishing trade responses.
Most governments, India included, are giving the new leadership a honeymoon as they try to evaluate Xi Jinping. But Beijing has been able to pick off neighbours one by one. It acts conciliatory to India, but bashes Japan; talks nicely to Russia and imposes sanctions on the Philippines. This makes collective action among China's neighbours difficult. Only the US has the ability to lead a 'balance China' grouping. But, given its recent record, it will take another few years to have the credibility to claim that mantle.
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