Obama's Successful Asia Offensive

East Asian countries may often be irritated by US arrogance, view its human rights concerns as hypocritical, stand in contempt of its domestic politics and alert to its economic and social troubles -- but they are not afraid of it.

That appears to be the central message from the mostly positive regional reception of the Asian diplomatic offensive spearheaded by President Barack Obama this month. That trip included the APEC meeting in Honolulu, a long delayed visit to Australia, participation in the East Asian Regional Summit in Bali, and the announcement that Hillary Clinton would visit Myanmar. By contrast, for all its economic success, for all of its attractions as a source of trade and investment, for all the admiration of its rise bestowed upon it by nations large and small, China has been forced onto the diplomatic back foot for one simple reason: the neighbors are afraid of its assumptions as well as its potential power.

For sure they want to be friends but are wary that China’s views of friendship are colored not merely by its size relative to the neighbors but by a history of assuming that others pay tribute to it, that its loose hegemony is a natural state of affairs, that its interpretation of history is the one that matters most. The clearest expression of that assumption is its claim to almost the whole South China Sea, up to rocks and seabed close to Vietnam, Philippines and Malaysia that are hundreds of nautical miles from its own shores. So it is not surprising that the seeds of the US effort to claw back some influence in a region after a decade when its own obsessions with the Middle East have helped China parlay its rising economic strength into a huge increase in its regional influence, were laid last year by its expression of its own interest in the South China Sea issue.

Vietnam previously had used its hosting of the Asean and East Asia summits to bring the South China Sea issue firmly back onto the regional agenda. And the US was quick to capitalize on this move by its former foe to declare its interest in freedom of navigation and the settlement of territorial disputes by multilateral negotiation and international law – by implication the 1984 Law of the Sea Convention defining, among other things, 200-mile exclusive economic zones which would give jurisdiction over the majority of the sea to Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. Since then China’s actions in harassing oil exploration efforts by Vietnam and the Philippines and its warning that those who disputed its claims “should be mentally prepared for the sounds of cannons” have made the region more than ever receptive not only to a US military presence but to enhanced cooperation with Japan, Australia and, to a lesser degree, India.

In that sense the most significant part of the Obama visit may have been the announcement of the stationing of a small body of US Marines in Darwin. This is a symbolic presence only but is clearly a gesture aimed not at appeasing Australia’s long-faded fears of Indonesia but the newer regional ones of China. A few years ago, Jakarta would have been irate at such a move. Now, given its own ties to the US military, it views stationing the troops there with equanimity. Significantly too an Australia which has long tended to be overly polite to China for the sake of its commodity exporters was now willing to anger Beijing. Perhaps Australia is realizing that its commodities are traded in global markets in which China is only one, if often the biggest, player.

Significant too was the US opening, albeit tentative, to Myanmar. The Clinton visit was clearly part of a coordinated effort that saw Asean accept Myanmar as 2014 host and the announcement by Aung San Suu Kyi that her National League for Democracy would now take part in the political process. There is a clear link between the domestic political change which began last year with the (very unfair) elections and led to the creation of a civilianized government and Myanmar’s attempts to improve relations with its neighbors, especially Asean members and India, and become less dependent on China.

Although US diplomats have been engaging with Burmese officials for some time, the way is now being opened for the gradual dismantling of western sanctions. This process will be slow and will depend heavily on what happens in Myanmar itself, but anything which reduces its China dependence is a plus for the US. Internal pressures are pushing in the same direction as nationalist sentiment has been aroused by the sheer extent of Chinese commercial presence in the country. It was recently reflected in the cancellation of the Myitsone Dam project which would have flooded a large valley in northern Burma to supply hydroelectric power to China.

Gains for the US from the third item on the Obama agenda, the Trans-Pacific Partnership proposal pushed at the APEC meeting, are tentative at best. The US is anxious to use its waning but still significant trading clout to press for freer trade, investment and other links with select countries. The idea is both to offset the impact of China’s free trade deal with Asean and other pacts involving the Asean+3 (China, Japan, Korea) group, and to press for liberalization issues otherwise stymied by the failure of the Doha Round of World Trade Organization negotiations.

At Honolulu Japan agreed to enter TPP negotiations along with nine other nations already signed up. They include Australia, Chile, Singapore, Malaysia and (surprisingly) Vietnam. It remains however in a very preliminary state. If Japan is to move from negotiations to real progress it will have to accept major changes to its agricultural protectionism, sure to be fiercely contested at home. Access issues for services will also be very difficult for Malaysia and Vietnam. With major Japanese commitment, others such as Thailand could well join too, if only to protect themselves from being disadvantaged. However, Japan itself could find itself disadvantaged if it does not, following the long-delayed US congressional approval of the Korea-US free trade deal.

A US badly needing to keep its imports down and push up exports is in a weak position to press new trade agendas. However TPP itself is symbolic of renewed US attention to a relatively prospering Asia as Europe offers limited attraction and the Middle East remains a dangerous mess for which the US itself deserves much blame.