Shipping danger: The US pivot to Asia

Shipping danger: The US pivot to Asia

Clearly the maritime shipping business will begin to pull out of its depression if the world economy begins a strong recovery. And the key growth area is Asia without a doubt. However, the Obama administration has undertaken a series of new policies of dubious merit, often called the Pivot to Asia. Unfortunately most will have a negative impact on the economic development of the region. Two situations which have a military element are important to examine: the Korean peninsula and the South China Sea.

North Korea

The fact that the Korean War has not officially ended and is still under an armistice speaks volumes about the aims of the US over the last 60 years. It has been in the interest of both the US and China for the Korean peninsula to be divided. China does not want a pro-Western country right on its border and the US does not want to lose its client state which can be used as a base for intelligence gathering and political influence in the region. This was especially true during the Cold War. A united Korea would be more neutral and even a South Korea not on a war footing would not be as anxious to support US activities. In addition, US presidents have used North Korea as a punching bag to display their anti-communist bona fides with US voters.

A key aspect of US, North Korea relations is the development by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) of a nuclear explosive device. US policies have, in fact, pushed the DPRK to establish a program to develop nuclear weapons. One must examine the various reasons that nations develop these weapons. First is to exert hegemony. The Truman administration appears to have had this policy in mind when it built additional nuclear weapons after the wartime detonations on Japan in 1945. Some analysts even believe the actual motivation of the US wartime use was strictly hegemony with respect to the Soviet Union. The second is to deter an adversary from attacking. This was the reason the Soviet Union developed its nuclear weapons. It was concerned with the US monopoly on nuclear weapons. The third is to demand respect from other nations. This was the reason France began its nuclear weapons program. In 1954 the President of France’s Council of Ministers, Pierre Mendès France, attended a meeting in Washington DC. On the return trip he reportedly told an aide, “It’s exactly like a meeting of gangsters. Everyone is putting his gun on the table, if you have no gun you are nobody. So we must have a nuclear program.” That December he ordered France’s nuclear weapons project. A fourth reason to have nuclear weapons is to counter conventional forces. During the Cold War the United States, through NATO, planned to use low-yield battlefield nuclear weapons to slow or halt any invasion of western Europe by the superior ground forces of the Soviet Union.

North Korea has two of these reasons for developing nuclear weapons. First, to achieve respect on the international stage as France did beginning in 1960 with its first detonation. Second, the DPRK can counter the threatening conventional forces of South Korea and the United States. Tactical low-yield nuclear weapons would allow the North Korean government to divert part of its large defense budget to improve the standard of living of its population by eliminating the need for a huge standing army.

The error in US policy over the decades since the armistice was signed is that presidents have used North Korea as a punching bag to puff up their reputation as a tough commander-in-chief with the American public. Action such as the recent flight of a nuclear capable B-1 bombers over South Korea is primarily for US domestic reasons. Unfortunately similar actions over the years have fed into North Korea’s insecurities with the result that the DPRK leaders have countered with their nuclear weapons program and their development of medium and long-range ballistic missiles. The genie cannot be put back in the bottle. The next US president will have to be content with the DPRK as a nuclear weapons state. Much more effective non-proliferation policies should have been pursued over the last 60 years.

South China Sea

The dispute between China and several other Asian nations concerning sovereignty over areas of the South China Sea has worsened with the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia. Instead of leaving negotiations to the nations involved, the US has stuck its nose into these disputes. The recent decision by the international tribunal in The Hague against China was immediately touted by the US as a rebuke of China, which had not taken part in the case nor recognised the tribunal’s jurisdiction. China and the Philippines had been conducting negotiations concerning this issue; the US should have kept quiet and not taken the position that China should obey the tribunal and cease its occupation of the area. The region is not in the Pacific Ocean. The United States only muddies the water by trying to exert hegemony there. Shipping would be affected very negatively by any military clashes in this area. In fact, considering the wide area involved it is clear that even minor incidents could cause problems for maritime shipping. Flights of B-52 aircraft over disputed islands by the US do not help the situation. The existence of US naval and other military bases in countries, such as the Philippines and Japan, is counterproductive to a peaceful environment for sea trade. There are even rumours the US would like to have a base in Vietnam. Also, joint military exercises in the area should cease.


From the standpoint of international trade and shipping in particular, the US is not contributing to the Asian economic growth with investment in infrastructure as China is with the One Belt, One Road initiative and the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIS). In fact the policy was to discourage allies from joining the AIIS. The overall US policy has been negative for Asian economic growth.
If the US continues an adversary position with respect to China, as it has with North Korea for over 60 years, economic development in Asia will be greatly hindered. The idea that a certain style of democracy is some fundamental principle that needs to be exported around the globe will simply cause disharmony and economic problems. In fact too often US policy is no more than neocolonialism. It must be remembered that although the US often states its principles as democracy and human rights, those ideals go by the wayside if the US economic interests are at stake. One bright recent development is that during the presidential primary election race, several candidates demonstrated support by American voters for far less adventurism as an element of US foreign policy.

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1 Comment

  1. Avatar
    Monteiro da Rocha
    September 24, 2016 at 5:02 pm

    I agree. Katerine is right!