US President Barack Obama is on a four-day visit from November 17 to Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia, where he will also attend the 7th East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh.
Some reports in the international media say the fact that Obama has chosen to visit Southeast Asia on his first foreign tour after being re-elected president shows that he wants to expedite the United States' strategic eastward shift and "upgrade" its China policy. Some observers even believe Obama's visit to Myanmar, the first by a US president in decades, is the "last trick" up the White House's sleeve to contain China.
These views are biased and exaggerate the negative vibes in Sino-US relations. There is no need to read too much into the timing of Obama's visit to Southeast Asia. By taking the trip, the US president wants to determine what his administration can do in the region and how. He also wants to know firsthand the attitude of East Asian countries toward the US, their relations with China and what they expect from Sino-US relations.
The US' strategic eastward shift is the result of the changing global power balance and reflects Washington's reluctance to be relegated to second place.
The US' eastward shift has many purposes. The first is to contain China. Using China's rise and the "China threat" theory, the US wants to convince China's neighbours that the Asia-Pacific needs Washington's presence and protection in order to "unite" them to strike a "strategic rebalance" against China in the region.
The second is to consolidate the US-Japan alliance and tighten its grip over Japan and other allies.
The third is to avoid being "marginalised" in the fast developing free trade areas of the Asia-Pacific region and to maintain its importance in the region's economic integration.
And the fourth is to stimulate the regional arms race so that the American military-industrial complex could reap the benefits.
Some experts argue that the US seems to have won the first round of its strategic eastward shift, for China has been "isolated." Nothing could be farther from the truth.
The US may have gained the upper hand for the time being -- for example it has tightened its control over Japan and other allies, and its arms dealers are making big bucks. But in the competition for economic dominance, the US has not made much gain. Washington has abandoned its drive to achieve the "Bogor Goals" of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation's trade and investment liberalisation. Instead, it is trying to promote the Trans-Pacific Partnership with a higher degree of liberalisation than that recommended by the World Trade Organisation. Until now, the new ambition remains a distant dream.
As far as containing China is concerned, there is much hue and cry without much success for the US. A recent article in The Wall Street Journal said that none of the countries neighbouring China is willing to join with Washington to confront Beijing. In fact, the spectre of an "Asian Nato" has been hovering around China without causing any real concern. The reason: China's neighbours are reluctant to take sides between Washington and Beijing for they want to develop relations with both.
It is true that maritime territorial disputes with some countries -- such as Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan -- have stirred trouble for China recently. But Vietnam is dependent on China economically and worried that the US will use the opportunity to engineer a "colour revolution" in the country. Anti-American sentiments run high in the Philippines, too, and Manila is worried Washington will use the dispute to its own advantage.
Japan is clearly the best partner of the US in the Asia-Pacific. But it cannot ignore the positive aspects of Sino-Japanese relations. Besides, it is also worried that the US will "manipulate" it to ultimately improve relations with China. The US, on its part, does not have complete faith in Japan and will by no means allow it to change its subordinate status in bilateral relations.
The US often says China and Russia, and even India, are "at a crossroads." In fact, it is the US that is now "at a crossroads." Its global power is declining but it is reluctant to accept the fact. At the international level, it has no option but to see its influence shrink. In Sino-US relations, it has no option but to cooperate.
Obama is widely regarded as an intelligent leader. So if he learns firsthand how Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia view the US and Sino-US relations during his visit to the three countries, he might rethink some of Washington's policies.
China's rise is inevitable. It adheres to the road of peaceful development, and is committed to building harmonious relations, never seeking hegemony but standing for equal partnership and win-win cooperation. This is the core of Beijing's grand strategy and also the "magic weapon" to deal with the US' strategic eastward shift.
China does not feel uncomfortable about the US' presence in the Asia-Pacific; it merely hopes the US would make more active and positive contributions to the region.
Why is the US desperate to create conditions for Japanese right-wing forces to create trouble? It will not do any good to either the US or Japan.
In early 2011, Chinese and US leaders said no to the Cold War mentality and reached an important agreement on the direction bilateral relations should develop, and pledged to work together to build a Sino-US cooperative partnership based on mutual respect and mutual benefit. China has been making great efforts in this direction and hopefully Obama is also doing the same.
The writer is Executive Director, Strategy Research Centre, China International Studies Research Fund.
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