US steps-up counter-China measures with the Asia Resurgence Initiative Act

Updated: January 3, 2019 7:40 PM

The Asia Resurgence Initiative Act (ARIA) phenomenon is not new. Under the previous Obama Administration, the “pivot” and then the “re-balance strategy” precisely intended to pursue similar objectives but failed to take off, except for deployment of the US Marines at St. Darwin in Australia.

Beijing has long-term plans to replace the US as the last year’s 19th Communist Party Congress envisaged to occupy the “centre stage”.

By Srikanth Kondapalli

The United States President Donald Trump’s recent signing of the bipartisan-supported bill on Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA) is part of a series of measures to counter challenges emanating from China. Four decades of reform in China– ironically with the help of the US – has not led to either a democratic China as Henry Kissinger envisaged, or a co-habiting power.

On the other hand, Beijing has long-term plans to replace the US as the last year’s 19th Communist Party Congress envisaged to occupy the “centre stage”. Beijing as well is preparing for “two centennials” – of rejuvenating the Communist Party at its hundredth anniversary in 2021 and that of People’s Republic by 2049.

That the relations between the two largest economies is not well is reflected in the emerging tariff wars in the last six months, despite a 90-day truce cobbled up at the G-20 meeting at Buenos Aires. The US imposition of over $250 billion in tariffs on Chinese goods was retaliated equally by China, despite a whopping $350 billion in trade surpluses that Beijing enjoyed. Balance of payments in favour of Beijing vis-à-vis the US cumulatively amounts to trillions.

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Secondly, following its own version of a Monroe Doctrine, China has been asserting in East and South China Seas in the last decade and expanding the envelope to encompass Asia and the Indo-Pacific region. This is despite China’s leader’s assurances of “no intention to militarise” these regions. In the process of this militarisation, China has been nudging out the US and others from the South China Sea. The US sending its ships within the 12 nautical miles of Chinese occupied artificial reefs only legitimised China’s claims.

Thirdly, despite a summit meeting between the US President and North Korean leader Kim Jung un at Singapore last year, and despite an understanding to denuclearise, progress in this regard is slow. On the other hand, Kim has met with China’s leader thrice amidst reports of North Korea enhancing its fissile materials and long-range reach of missile systems.

Fourthly, the recent US curbs on China’s telecommunications giants Zhongxing (ZTE) and Huawei for their alleged connections to North Korea and Iran respectively, suggest that the business conflict is spilling over and intensifying in cyber and regional security fields.

The emerging bipartisan consensus in the US on addressing China’s rise, terming China (and Russia) as a competitor in the new Defence Strategy of the US last year, US Vice President’s speech at the Hudson Institute – all need to be seen as a part of the the making of the ARIA.

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In this background, ARIA intends to reinforce the US leadership position in the Indo-Pacific region by allocating $1.5 billion annually for the next five years in strengthening the US economic, diplomatic and strategic linkages. In the light of sanctions on Iran, ARIA provides scope for increasing US energy exports. It also intends to clear arms sales to Taiwan, India and others.

As such the ARIA phenomenon is not new. Under the previous Obama Administration, the “pivot” and then the “re-balance strategy” precisely intended to pursue similar objectives but failed to take off, except for deployment of the US Marines at St. Darwin in Australia. Also, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue formed on November 11, 2017 with the US, Japan, Australia and India is yet to take an institutional shape. Likewise, the announcement of $100 million in funds for infrastructure projects in the Indo-Pacific that US Secretary of State Pompeo announced recently is hardly a match to the over $80 billion invested by China in the Belt and Road Initiative projects in the last five years.

Nevertheless, cumulatively, the recent US measures including reciprocal access of US citizens to any portion of China (including Tibet), stepped up coverage on the situation in Xinjiang, clearing of arms sales to Taiwan (about $300 million) and ARIA signify the emerging protracted contest with China.

The declining economic growth rates in China, dwindling exports and business sentiment, renminbi’s sharp depreciation, turbulence in stock exchanges, curbs on local spending and other measures suggest to the stepped-up pressure on Beijing.

On the other hand, growing bonhomie with Russia on issues like Syria, Iran, North Korea and on energy, consolidation and expansion of its influence in the Belt and Road Initiative areas and in South China Sea suggest to Beijing upping the ante vis-à-vis the US. To this extent ARIA is too little and too late to impact on a strategically consolidating China.

In this context, ARIA is to further enhance material capabilities of India, much as the botched-up Peace Pearl Program of the US-China defence cooperation in 1984 envisaged to do for China in the backdrop of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Even without ARIA, the defence relations between the US and India are on the upswing for over a decade. In the words of former defence secretary of the US Ashton Carter, “defence ties have become the basis” for bilateral relations – reflected in the sale of advanced drones, light artillery, Apache helicopters, C-130J heavy-lift transports, giving nod to Israel to deliver to India Phalcon aerial early waring reconnaissance aircraft and the like. The foundational agreements in logistics and communications security further strengthens such ties. The 2+2 dialogue mechanism between the US and India, the trilateral to include Japan have all strengthened this equation. ARIA would further send signals in this regard.

(Srikanth Kondapalli is Professor in Chinese Studies at JNU)

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