By Marc Palen
Barack Obama’s speedy postelection pivot to Asia has left the world in a tizzy.
With the U.S. elections safely behind him, Obama promptly headed off to Asia in advance of this week’s East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh.
100 years ago, American businessmen and diplomats had obsessed over gaining access to the fabled China Market. With intense U.S. involvement in the trade-oriented Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), the once mythical Asia Market is fast becoming even more of a reality.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda is already gearing up for Obama’s arrival. Noda hopes to accelerate talks with Obama over Japan’s joining the TPP in the lead up to next month’s negotiations in New Zealand.
So too is Thailand warming up to Obama’s pending visit, and speculation is mounting that it will also seek membership into the TPP, which would make it the fifth ASEAN country to do so.
These entreaties do much to enhance the newfound leadership position of the United States as it goes into this week’s ASEAN Summit and next month’s TPP negotiations.
They also highlight the Obama Administration’s newfound focus on Asia. The fact that Obama’s Asian tour follows so closely on the heels of his reelection “speaks to the importance he places on the region, its centrality to so many of our national security issues and priorities,” a White House official said.
And it isn’t just the United States playing in the Asia-Pacific free trade game. At last Friday’s NAFTA20 Summit in Texas, joining the TPP was just about all Canadian and Mexican business leaders and government officials wanted to talk about, especially since the TPP offers the three nations “an opportunity to update NAFTA on the margins,” observed John Weekes, one of Canada’s lead negotiators for the North American Free Trade Agreement back in the early 1990s.
Canadians seem particularly keen, having successfully pushed their way into the TPP just last month. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has himself “rediscovered” the Asia-Pacific in his attempt to stymie what he calls an increasing global “slippage” toward protectionism.
But, American interest in Asian markets brings with it sizeable Sino-American tensions, much as it did 100 years before.
Particularly, like the United States, China is also aggressively seeking to expand its economic influence in the region. For example, it is even now moving forward with its own trilateral trade agreement with South Korea and Japan.
Further American military expansion in the Asia-Pacific will only heighten these tensions, and U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta only just finished up a visit to Cambodia for the purpose of expanding U.S. military ties there. This move closely followed his announcement that the Pentagon will be enlarging the size of its military exercises in the region, ostensibly to put pressure on North Korea.
The U.S. has also pledged to put 2,500 marines in northern Australia, as well as regional missile-defense systems with the stated purpose of further deterring North Korea.
These alleged North Korean maneuvers nevertheless have “spooked” Australia, according to Peter Jennings, the head of the government-funded Australian Strategic Policy Institute. He views China to be at the heart of any U.S. military buildup in the region.
And Jennings is not alone.
The American military buildup has predictably been a growing cause for concern in Beijing, when combined with the Obama Administration’s encouraging the Philippines and Vietnam to take a tougher position against Beijing over disputed territory in the resource-rich South China Sea.
China is further upset over the Obama Administration’s recent call for a multilateral solution to this mounting and contentious territorial dispute. The Chinese have instead suggested bilateral negotiations, that the countries involved “can maintain peace and stability” without American involvement, according to Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying.
If China still had doubts as to American intentions, during a debate last month Obama bluntly stated that increased military actions in the Asia-Pacific were indeed a response to China’s growing influence, strengthening the widely held idea that the American pivot is partly to contain China.
Obama’s hawkish anti-Chinese rhetoric on the campaign trail coincided closely with U.S.complaints before the World Trade Organization over China’s allegedly illegal subsidization of its auto industry. And only a couple weeks ago, the U.S. International Trade Commission levied sizeable punitive tariffs against Chinese solar companies.
All of which will certainly cast a long shadow over Obama’s Pacific visit.
China’s indignant response to Obama’s Asian pivot even led political science professor Robert Ross of Boston College to call it “unnecessary and counterproductive” in the pages of Foreign Affairs. “We’re stoking the fires of nationalism. No great power could be expected to sit there and benignly accept changes in the status quo that undermine its security,” Ross reiterated to the Wall Street Journal.
But continued Sino-American head butting is by no means inevitable.
Despite Obama’s military maneuvers and China’s militant mishandling of the South China Sea, American interest in Asia-Pacific economic expansion instead offers the possibility of stronger Sino-American trade relations.
Upon Obama’s reelection, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman even acknowledged that “China is willing to work with the U.S. . . . to promote the Sino-U.S. partnership to achieve new and greater development and to better benefit the two peoples and the people of the world.”
Perhaps President Obama will extend an olive branch of his own when he lands in Cambodia for the annual ASEAN summit this week.
This article was originally published by OnlineOpinion