Washington out to prove it is the real leader of Asia Pacific and plans its moves to weaken China's influence in the region
The attitude of the United States toward East Asia has changed a lot since Barack Obama entered the White House last year. The US has announced its East Asia strategy, highlighted its growing focus on the region and pressed forcefully ahead with its policies.
What deserves special attention is Washington's simultaneous efforts to consolidate its presence in East Asia through soft channels, including academic research, international conferences and unreported official visits.
The US announced right at the beginning of Obama's term that it would put back the focus on East Asia. The first high-profile announcement of its East Asia policy came at the ASEAN Regional Forum in Singapore in July last year, where US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation with ASEAN and announced that "we are back".
Obama announced his Asian policy while visiting Japan in November and stressed that the US was a Pacific nation. He even called himself the first Pacific president in American history and hoped the US would cooperate with East Asia more formally.
Shortly after Obama's speech, Clinton said in Hawaii that the US acted as a resident power in Asia. In the National Security Strategy Report released in May, the US reiterated the fundamental role of its military alliance in its ties with Pacific nations. All of these show the US has redefined its East Asia strategy and policies.
In recent years, China has seen a series of high-profile US moves in East Asia. In November, Obama presided over the first summit between the US and ASEAN, establishing a new 10+1 framework. Early this year, Washington geared up its efforts, approved a $6.4-billion arms sale to Taiwan and stuck adamantly to the policy of not shifting its Okinawa military base.
Exploiting the Cheonan incident, the US settled the Okinawa base issue, strengthened its military alliance with the Republic of Korea (ROK) and pressed ahead with the US-ROK military drills. All these shifted the world's focus on East Asia. Apart from these much-hyped moves, the US is also moving quietly on several fronts to increase its influence in East Asia.
I have met with a number of officials and visited a few think tanks in Washington and received a number of US scholars in China. From them, I have gathered that the US is keen on conducting research and inspections, and holding seminars to know what is happening in East Asia. One of its major aims is to see how China is working with its neighbors and study the root causes of some of the burning issues in the region.
On one hand, America's soft moves provide it the mental support needed to publicize its policies. On the other, they pave the way for future US actions in the region.
A series of recent meetings of foreign ministers in Hanoi, Vietnam, provided the US with a fresh opportunity to enhance its influence in the region. During those meetings, the US strengthened its ties with ASEAN. And in a move that surprised many, the US spoke on the South China Sea issue, openly challenging China's core interests.
The move shows the US wants to make the world know it is the real leader in Southeast Asia, East Asia and even Asia Pacific.
To sum up, the recent high-profile US policies and actions are to strengthen its ties with traditional allies and beef up its military presence in East Asia. Not surprisingly, the National Security Strategy Report says this is the cornerstone that secures the US the leadership in Asia Pacific.
America's soft moves are more aggressive, and are aimed at weakening China's influence during the possible integration of East Asia, breaking any cooperative framework that excludes the US and playing down the efforts East Asian countries have made to build a regional community. Its eventual aim is to establish a system in Asia Pacific that is dominated and led by the US.
The author is director of the Center for Strategic and Conflict Management at China Foreign Affairs University in Beijing.
(China Daily 08/07/2010 page5)