US President Barack Obama’s recently concluded Asia-Pacific trip offered a number of strong indications that the US is keen to breathe new life into its efforts at engagement with the region.
It is important to remember that the US has been the dominant economic and military presence in the region since after World War II. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, US sway in the area was even more complete.
Although China was as an emerging economy in the 1980s under then-Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平), it remained heavily dependent on the US and its Western allies for access to their markets and entry into global trade forums like the WTO.
However, in 2001, the US invaded Afghanistan and Iraq as part of its global “war on terror,” where it remains stuck, especially in Afghanistan. With the US distracted by these two wars, China was able to raise its regional profile, backed by impressive economic growth and the steady rise of its military power.
In this situation, it is perhaps not surprising that some in the Asia-Pacific region concluded that the US might not stick around much longer, and that it would eventually be replaced as the dominant regional power by China.
The global financial crisis of 2008 and 2009, the fallout from which the US and Europe are still struggling to resolve, has compounded this rather pessimistic view of the US.
It is against the backdrop of China’s rise, and its impact on the region, that Obama declared during a daylong visit to Australia that the US is an Asia-Pacific power and is here to stay. As the US unwinds its military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is shifting its focus to the Asia-Pacific, where history will be made in this century.
“The United States has been and always will be a Pacific nation,” Obama said. “Let there be no doubt. In the Asia-Pacific in the 21st century, the United States of America is all in.”
The choice of Australia to make this declaration is important because both the US and Australia are expanding their military and strategic alliance against the backdrop of a security threat from a rising China. The US-Australia military alliance under the ANZUS treaty is being beefed up by stationing US marines in the country’s north, and with the use of naval and air facilities in the west.
Both the US and Australia deny that their expanded military relationship is directed at China, but there is very little doubt that Beijing is seen as a potential threat.
“The United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future, by upholding core principles [of human rights] and in close partnership with allies and friends,” Obama said in Canberra.
In other words, China is forewarned that the US will not quietly fade away, and that it will not be able to push around smaller nations with which it has maritime disputes.
These countries are being assured that they can bank on the US to stand up for them. At the same time, the US will not stop pressing China on human rights and democracy.
The assertion of China’s sovereignty over the South China Sea is likely to become a regional flashpoint at some point. The Philippines and Vietnam have competing claims to the Spratly Islands (南沙群島) in the South China Sea, which have already led to naval incidents.
The US and the Philippines are taking steps to boost their defense relationship. The US and Vietnam are also forging closer political and military ties, and there has even been talk of a former US military base from the Vietnam war being revived.
The US and Japan are already close military allies and their alliance has been further beefed up over the past few years.
China and Japan also have competing maritime claims in the East China Sea that have led to naval skirmishes.
At the same time, the Korean Peninsula remains a live-wire, with North Korea unwilling to give up its nuclear capability. Though China is opposed to North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, it is not inclined to use its leverage to lean on Pyongyang.
Taiwan is another hot-button issue, with China claiming it as its own territory and asserting its right to take military action in the event of a declaration of independence.
China’s claim to sovereignty over the South China Sea is creating a general sense of unease that Beijing could interfere with open sea lanes.
These competing claims mean that the Asia-Pacific is a potential time bomb.
The South China Sea was discussed at the just-concluded ASEAN summit in Bali against China’s wishes, and is likely to be included on the agenda in future summits.
Beijing prefers to discuss such issues bilaterally with those countries that have competing claims. This approach would allow it to bring its considerable powers of persuasion to bear on each country individually.
Beijing considers the US an external entity that has absolutely no role to play in regional disputes. The US, of course, is determined to raise its Pacific profile and remind China that it has always been a Pacific power.
In other words, the US decision to make Asia-Pacific policy a priority unavoidably complicates US-China relations.
Australia finds itself right in the middle of this evolving situation, as a willing, if not enthusiastic, partner of US policy to contain Beijing.
China’s People’s Daily warned Australia that it cannot play both sides of the coin and hope to maximize economic gains from its booming trade relationship with China while choosing to side strategically with the US.
“Australia surely cannot play China for a fool. It is impossible for China to remain detached, no matter what Australia does to undermine its security,” the paper said.
More importantly, Obama’s attempts to revitalize the US’ Asia policy go beyond Australia. In a way, the gloves are off and the US is telling China that it will make a determined stand in the Asia-Pacific region to stave off Beijing’s push into the region and efforts to push out the US.
In order to achieve this goal, the US will have to foster new and reinforce old military and strategic ties with those countries that have maritime disputes with China or are otherwise keen to use the US as a countervailing force to China.
How the US-China competition for power will unfold is anybody’s guess. One thing is certain — the Pacific Ocean is unlikely to live up to its name as this new power game unfolds.
Sushil Seth is a commentator based in Australia.