One concern is the underlying reason Obama announced that the U.S. would build a military base in Darwin, Australia. It will be the first new American base after years of cutbacks and base consolidations. The base in Darwin can give America the ability to control the very important Strait of Malacca and the Sunda Strait (and the planned Sumatra-Java) and to provide quickly military assistance when needed to the U.S. partners in the region. The base can also give the U.S. easy access to East Timor, which is rich in natural resources and at the same time heavily courting and also courted by China, much to ASEAN's chagrin.
But this begs a question, though: will this new military base have a large impact, considering that it will only have 2,500 marines stationed there? It won't have much use in helping Vietnam or Philippines to resist China.
The answer is that the base is a symbolic commitment to the region. As the New York Times noted:
Mr. Obama described the deployment as responding to the wishes of democratic allies in the region, from Japan to India. Some allies have expressed concerns that the United States, facing war fatigue and a slackened economy, will cede its leadership role to China.
Not surprisingly, China objected and saw America's proposed military base as another provocation, believing this to be an attempt at military encirclement.
Has the world seen this kind of phenomena before? Quite so. Let's remember the Wilhelmine Imperial Germany, whose rise to great power status contributed to the cause of the Great War (the First World War).
It is too hasty, however, to declare that the rise of China will lead to another great war. After all, the proclamation of the German Empire in 1871 did not automatically lead to the war, and even today debates are still raging about what really caused the First World War. Was it really a preventive war to preempt German (or even Russian) dominance on the continent? Was it a "war by the timetable," that the empires of Europe were being held hostage by inflexible military planning? Or maybe it was the case of "tail wagging the dog," that Germany gave a blank check to Austria-Hungary's ambition in the Balkans, which in the end was the main trigger for war. There is simply no clear answer that history can provide for us.
The point here is that the rise of a state to the status of greatness usually creates a security dilemma to the surrounding countries, as neighbors simply cannot predict what a rising power will do in a long run. Will its power be used to dominate or to assist and nurture?
That's why the Southeast Asian nations in ASEAN have tried so hard to pull Burma/Myanmar out of China's orbit. Last week they decided to endorse Burma/Myanmar to hold the ASEAN Chairmanship in 2014, regardless of its economic messes and abysmal human rights record.
Of course, Myanmar is also a willing partner in this dance. As I noted in my previous post, it seems that there's a growing tension within Myanmar's political elites, who were too afraid of growing Chinese influence in Myanmar and yet at the same time, realized that there was no alternative to China, unless they engaged in some political opening and used ASEAN as a feeler to the United States.
It seems that their gamble has paid off so far, with Hillary Clinton to be the first U.S. Secretary of State to visit the country in 50 years.Whether this will lead to further economic and political reforms in Burma/Myanmar is still up in the air, but the tally so far is likely making some people nervous in Beijing.
By now, China must realize that regardless of its economic outreach, its military posturing and aggressive diplomacy has done a lot of harm to its foreign interests. As the new 800-pound panda on the block with growing economic and military strength, in spite of its supposedly benign intentions, everything it does will have major effects, and all of its actions will be sharply scrutinized by its neighbors and others around the world, including the nervous United States.
Note: This is a companion post to an article of mine published in the Jakarta Globe.