Who is the real superpower?
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Geopolitics has a nasty habit of surprising people and embarrassing political pundits. Such is the case with the recent dramatic turn of events in US-China relations. Not too long ago, the conventional wisdom, prevalent in elite circles in Beijing and elsewhere in Asia, was that China was gaining the upper-hand in its rivalry with the United States. Since Uncle Sam, sagging under mountains of debt, has been bleeding blood and treasure in Iraq and Afghanistan for nearly a decade, the strategic balance is thought to have shifted decisively in China's favour. Of course, such perception was not lost on Chinese policy-makers, whose foreign policy behaviour in the past few years has been, to use a euphemism, muscular.
But within the past month, the US pulled off a series of diplomatic coups and regained its strategic initiative in East Asia. At the East Asia Summit in Bali, Indonesia, the US coordinated its regional allies and friends to push back against China's territorial claims to the South China Sea. Beijing, which has insisted on solving the disputes through bilateral negotiations and resisted outside interventions, found itself isolated. Then, signalling its resolve to China's jittery neighbours concerned about the durability of American military presence in East Asia, President Barack Obama flew to Australia and announced the opening of a new American marine base that will station 2,500 troops. Immediately after the end of the East Asia Summit, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made a historic visit to Burma and initiated a process of re-engagement with the military junta that may yield significant strategic dividends for America. Should this effort bear fruit, China's strategic hold on Burma could be gravely endangered.
Taken together, these adroit diplomatic moves accomplished two interrelated strategic objectives. First, Washington succeeded in debunking the conventional wisdom that it no longer had sufficient leverage against Beijing. As Asia's ultimate guarantor of security and off-shore balancer against Chinese hegemony, the US demonstrated that it could apply not only its formidable military and diplomatic clout, but also rally most countries in the region with relative ease in countering China's growing power and putting China on the defensive.
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