The Australian

By Geoffrey Garrett  

Barack Obama's tour of the Asia-Pacific confirms its rising strategic importance.

When the history is written, the past two weeks may well be seen as the point at which the US committed itself to the Asia-Pacific century, and to a strategy for supporting a dense network of bilateral and multilateral relationships among pro-market democracies in the region as a way to socialise but if necessary to balance rising China.

There were ample reasons why Barack Obama could have chosen to stay in Washington in the wake of the Democrats' savaging in the mid-term congressional elections. But he and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton covered the length and breadth of Asia.

The President's support for India as a permanent member of the UN Security Council and his Indonesian admission that the US still has a long way to go in building bridges to the Muslim world grabbed the global headlines. Closer to home, Clinton's lengthy menage a trois with Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd fascinated the local media. 

But the extended Obama-Clinton Asia swing was centrally managed out of Washington with a clear purpose to systematically articulate the US's 21st-century Asia strategy: reinvest in traditional alliances, court new friends such as India and Indonesia, jump into the process of Asia-Pacific institution building, work with China without embracing it and highlight the centrality of common values and interests (markets and democracy) as the touchstone of the enterprise.

Here are some of the key statements from the trip.

First, Clinton on the Australia-US alliance: "The United States has no better friend than Australia and it is a partnership that we have to keep evolving; we can't just look to the past and say, 'Haven't we been great together?' We have to say: 'What do we now need to do going forward?' "

While some in Australia worry that the alliance is outmoded and that America is uninterested, the US is committed to integrating its bilateral Asian alliances forged after World War II (not only with Australia, but also with Japan and Korea) into a system of 21st-century alliances among capitalist democracies.

Second, Obama on America's new friends: "India is not simply emerging; India has already emerged. And it is my firm belief that the relationship between the US and India, bound by our shared interests and values, will be one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century.

"I return to Indonesia as a friend, but also as a President who seeks a deep and enduring partnership between our two countries. Because as vast and diverse countries, as neighbours on either side of the Pacific, and above all as democracies, the United States and Indonesia are bound together by shared interests and shared values."

India and Indonesia are very different countries with very different histories. America's relations with both were fraught and strained for most of the second half of the 20th century.

But now the US wants to embrace them as the two largest pro-market democracies in Asia, talking about its relationships with them in the same terms - shared interests and shared values - as it uses for traditional allies even as it describes the new relationships as partnerships rather than alliances.

Third, Clinton on Asian regionalism: "Let me simply state the principle that will guide America's role in Asian institutions. If consequential security, political and economic issues are being discussed, and if they involve our interests, then we will seek a seat at the table."

Clinton participated in the East Asian Summit this year and Obama will next year. The administration is pumping up the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit it will host in Honolulu in a year's time. This is a far cry from George W. Bush's conspicuous absence from the institutional dynamism surrounding ASEAN and his lack of enthusiasm for APEC.

Finally, Clinton on US-China: "It is not in anyone's interest for the United States and China to see each other as adversaries . . . We do look forward to working closely with China, both bilaterally and through key institutions, as it takes on a greater role, and at the same time, takes on more responsibility in regional and global affairs."

The contrast is clear. There is no talk of partnership with China, and no talk of shared values and interests. The US must work with China because it is a rising global power. The US will offer China a vision of what its engagement with the US could look like, and hope to socialise China into turning that vision into a reality.

But only if China increases political and economic freedom. Unless and until this happens, the US will view its relationship with China as "work", economically, politically and militarily - essential, but work nonetheless.

The amount of work to be done to manage tensions and generate mutual benefits in the US-China relationship has increased since the global financial crisis. China is newly assertive and the US is uncharacteristically uncertain. Old Chinese territorial disputes with Japan are back on the boil. China and the US are engaged in an escalating blame game over economic imbalances.

The US wants to make sure these frictions do not turn into crises.

Building a network of pro-market democracies across the Pacific increases the chance China will one day join the club and insures against the risk that China will reject it.

Professor Geoffrey Garrett is chief executive of the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.