By Geoffrey Garrett
US President Barack Obama boldly declared in a speech to the Australian parliament last week that his country is "all in" when it comes to the Asia Pacific. His ambition is for the US to lead as large as possible a values-and-interests coalition of US allies and friends in the region.
Australia rose immediately to this clarion call, not only as a key partner in the US-led efforts for free trade but also welcoming new military bases.
When it comes to measures such as the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP), China is clearly on the outside looking in. Military collaboration between the US and its allies is widely perceived as a hedge against China.
This could change, and the US says it wants China's full engagement in all the big issues of the Asia-Pacific century. But the US is insisting that this will only be possible if China is willing to play by what Obama called "the rules" set by the US, which he claims are widely accepted in the region.
As every poker player knows, going "all in" is the ultimate high risk and high reward gambit. You can win big, in this case having China accede to the US demands regarding opening its economy, giving larger political freedom to its people, and ending its territorial disputes in the region.
But you can also lose everything. Here Obama's gambit risks not only alienating China but also increasing the chances of conflict with China.
Only the confident risk going all in. Obama's confidence stems from his belief that "history is on the side of the free - free societies, free governments, free economies, free people."
This statement is more than blind faith. Obama reasons that the trajectory of change is on the US side. While China has booming trade relationships with many countries in the Asia Pacific, including longstanding US allies led by Australia, Japan and Korea, there is still widespread unease in the region about China's ultimate intentions and ambitions.
In contrast, despite the big hits the US brand has taken, most Asian nations seem interested in even tighter ties with the US. This includes not only traditional allies but also new friends like India, Indonesia and Vietnam.
The US calculation is that its coalition in the Asia Pacific is not only invulnerable to China's rise, but that it is so powerfully magnetic that bit by bit it will socialize China into joining, and changing itself in the process.
This socialization strategy is most obvious regarding economics and the TPP. Obama told his audience in Canberra "we need growth that is fair, where every nation plays by the rules; where workers rights are respected and our businesses can compete on a level playing field; where the intellectual property and new technologies that fuel innovation are protected; and where currencies are market-driven, so no nation has an unfair advantage." Although he didn't mention it by name, the specific issues Obama raised were no doubt directed at China.
Obama also went out of his way to talk up the importance of domestic political freedoms, claiming that "certain rights are universal, among them freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, and the freedom of citizens to choose their own leaders." And in an even more direct challenge to China, Obama asserted that "prosperity without freedom is just another form of poverty."
The sharpest edge of Obama's Asian visit concerned the US military presence in the region. In addition to the announcement of new troop rotations in Australia, the president also agreed to provide more support and training for the Indonesian military.
The real point of these new military initiatives is likely more symbolic than strategic. The US values and interests coalition is more than rhetorical, and it is expanding. Its members would fight for their principles, though it is in everyone's interests that no fights breaks out.
Obama said "we stand for an international order in which the rights and responsibilities of all nations and people are upheld. Where international law and norms are enforced." Military cooperation shows that this is more than cheap talk.
Obama has laid down the gauntlet to China, saying that its booming trade ties must be underpinned by its acceptance of the values he believes the rest of the region holds dear. And he thinks, over time, China will agree.
Obama probably thinks this is a smart bet for three reasons. The US debt-induced military spending cuts won't curtail its capacity in Asia. China is unlikely to respond decisively until its new leadership team is firmly in place. And most importantly, it is in China's interests to move in the direction Obama wants. Time will tell if he is right.