SINGAPORE - U.S. President Barack Obama’s week-long visit to Asia was meant to reassure allies in the region of American support and re-engagement. But it raised Chinese hackles and failed to dispel doubts over his administration’s ‘pivot to Asia’ strategy.
During his visit to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines Apr. 23-29, Obama repeatedly asserted that the key to prosperity in Asia lay in China playing by the rules, rather than bending them to suit its own interests.
His final stop was in Manila, traditionally a staunch U.S. ally that has an ongoing dispute with China over islands in the South China Sea. The Philippines and the U.S. signed an Agreement on Enhanced Defence Cooperation (AEDC) that will allow the U.S. to redeploy military forces in the islands for the first time in over two decades.
“What we see is Washington’s ‘exhibitionist syndrome’, that is, the imperative it feels to ‘show the flag’ to its allies and to China, and to do so in an inexpensive way, with no rent to the host country.”
- Walden Bello“Our territorial conflicts with China are the reason for this new agreement,” noted Walden Bello, a member of parliament writing in the Philippines Daily Inquirer. “AEDC is the mechanism that will make the Chinese respect our rights to Scarborough Shoal, the nine islands and reefs we claim in the Spratly Islands, our continental shelf and our 200 Mile Exclusive Economic Zone. The truth of the matter, however, is that the deal will do no such thing.”
Bello, a long-term critic of U.S. policy in the region, argues, “What we see is Washington’s ‘exhibitionist syndrome’, that is, the imperative it feels to ‘show the flag’ to its allies and to China, and to do so in an inexpensive way, with no rent to the host country.”
Obama said in a speech at the Philippines Army headquarters in Manila that nations and peoples have the right to live in security and peace and have their sovereignty and territorial integrity respected. “We believe that international law must be upheld, that freedom of navigation must be preserved and commerce must not be impeded,” he said.
Critics say such comments have drawn further skepticism in the region because what Obama is preaching is not practiced by his own nation – as the history of American foreign policy in the past two decades clearly shows. China has also latched on to such arguments to claim that it is the U.S. rather than China that is trying to destabilize the region.
“Obama’s rhetoric about peace and international law sounds hollow because it contradicts what Washington and (he) himself have been up to,” said the state-controlled China Daily in an editorial on Apr. 29, adding “it is now clear that Washington is no longer bothering to conceal its attempt to contain China’s influence in the region. It is even less convincing to say the U.S. pivot to the Asia-Pacific is not targeted against China.”
Announced in January 2012, the Obama administration’s ‘pivot to Asia’ strategy is a multi-dimensional one that includes improving bilateral relationships in the region, especially with its traditional allies; deepening working relationships with emerging powers, including China; and promoting trade and investment in the Asia-Pacific region.
“Asian allies (such as Singapore and the Philippines) believe a U.S.-centric order is good for the region by and large,” argued Dr Tan See Seng, head of the Center for Multilateralism Studies at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) here.
“America is one of the major countries that sets the rules and expects others to follow even as it breaks its own rules. China sees that point very clearly and doesn’t accept that,” Tan told IPS.
China Daily says that for a considerably long period, the Chinese have cherished the “naive thought” that Washington will rein in its unruly allies when they go too far. “Obama’s current trip should be a wake-up call that this is just wishful thinking,” it argued. “Ganging up with its troublemaking allies, the U.S. is presenting itself as a security threat to China.”
The troublesome allies China refers to are Japan and the Philippines. The dispute between Japan and China centres around the uninhabited islands that Japan calls Senkaku and China calls Diaoyu. Chinese claims to the islands are based on historical records going back to the Ming Dynasty in the 14th century but, at the end of World War II, Japan officially transferred ownership of the islands to the U.S. and, in 1972, the U.S. transferred it back to Japan, moves seen by China as illegal.
In an interview with Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper, Obama has said that the islands fall under the U.S.-Japan Mutual Cooperation and Security Treaty and that Washington opposes any “unilateral attempts to undermine Japan’s administration of the islands.” This comment has ruffled many feathers in Beijing.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang was quoted in China Daily as saying that his country “firmly opposes” actions that place the Diaoyu Islands under the cover of the U.S.-Japan treaty and urged Washington to “speak and act cautiously.” He said, “China’s determination and will to safeguard territorial integrity, sovereignty and maritime interests is unshakeable.”
Chinese commentators have referred to the Obama visit as an effort to form an Asian version of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
But Dr Termsak Chalermpalanupap, lead researcher at the ASEAN Studies Center of the National University of Singapore, told IPS that such an organization was not necessary.
“Most countries in Southeast Asia don’t want confrontation with China,” argued Termsak, who worked with the ASEAN Secretariat for over 20 years. “China has become the top trading partner for most of these countries and what they welcome is more trade and economic integration with China.”
Dr Evan Resnick, Coordinator of the U.S. Program at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore believes the U.S. is concerned about freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. “It’s a major artery for international commerce and the U.S. is interested in freedom of navigation for trade and military purposes,” he told IPS.
Tan argues that the U.S. has been used to the “hegemonic manifestation” of its power in the Asian region. But with an emerging China and nationalistic pride contributing to growing assertiveness in the South China Sea, the U.S. sees itself as a declining power and is troubled by what it believes is China’s challenge to it.
“Obama’s ‘pivot’ is an attempt to continue and maintain its interests,” he noted.