The sudden death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il drives home the importance of being able to work not only with U.S. allies but also with China in managing Asia's key threats. This is what makes striking the right balance in America's overall strategy toward Asia so vital.
The Obama administration's overall posture toward Asia has in fact evolved considerably over the course of the past couple of years. President Barack Obama laid out the result in its fullest form last month, as he traveled to Honolulu, Australia, and Indonesia for a series of major meetings. The message of this remarkable trip warrants careful examination, as it articulated an integrated diplomatic, military, and economic strategy that stretches from the Indian subcontinent through Northeast Asia -- and one that can profoundly shape the U.S.-China relationship. The core message: America is going to play a leadership role in Asia for decades to come.
The U.S. media portrayed this message as directed solely at confronting China in Asia, but it is in fact much more complex than that. How realistic is the strategy the president articulated, and how is it likely to affect U.S.-China relations and the roles of both countries in Asia? Does America have the resources to make good on the rhetoric concerning this historic "pivot"?
What Has Changed?
Obama came into office as avowedly "the first Pacific president," convinced that George W. Bush's administration had paid too little attention to Asian regional issues and that the United States should restore and then enhance its traditional level of engagement there. Efforts accelerated as China's Asia policy became more hard edged during 2010 and as, during 2011, the United States' military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan significantly declined.
Especially during 2010, the United States did not hesitate to respond to Chinese heavy-handedness in the region. In reaction to North Korea's test of a nuclear device and then launch of deadly provocations against the South, the Obama administration unequivocally supported Seoul, pressured China strongly to rein in Pyongyang, and against China's strong objections carried out naval exercises in the Yellow Sea to serve as a warning to North Korea.
In both Northeast Asia and the South China Sea, the Obama administration formally affirmed its neutrality in territorial disputes involving China but adopted substantive positions that predictably raised hackles in Beijing. When Japan detained a Chinese fishing-boat captain after an incident in the territorial waters near the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, the State Department confirmed that the U.S.-Japan alliance covers these waters because the islands are under the effective administrative control of Japan.
Renewed contentiousness over conflicting territorial claims by various littoral countries in the South China Sea led Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the ASEAN Regional Forum meeting in Hanoi in mid-2010 to affirm an American vital interest in freedom of navigation in this region and in keeping the region open for normal commercial activities. At the same time, the secretary stated that the United States would be willing to facilitate a collaborative process for addressing the territorial claims and that the United States believes that all maritime claims must be supported fully by claims to land features. China bristled at the suspicion that Washington was inserting itself into these territorial issues and made clear that Beijing could see no threat that had arisen to freedom of navigation in the region.
In these and other instances, during 2010 the United States made discrete responses to various Chinese initiatives that were seen as potentially leveraging China's economic power to achieve diplomatic and security gains in the region. These responses were combined with very active bilateral U.S.-China diplomacy to keep the U.S.-China relationship on track and to manage expectations on both sides. A successful state visit for Chinese President Hu Jintao in Washington in January 2011 indicated that this combination of firmness on defined issues and active bilateral diplomacy had left the bilateral U.S.-China relationship on reasonably solid footing.
Against this background, the president's November 2011 Asia trip highlighted that U.S. policy has now taken a significant step forward in four areas:
Multilateral organizations. Over the past decade China invested substantial efforts in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the ASEAN+3 (ASEAN, plus China, Japan, and South Korea), and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). Beijing negotiated a free trade agreement with ASEAN that provided for generous "early harvest" measures in the mid-2000s; the full agreement came into effect in 2010. This agreement, of course, excluded the United States. Beijing also supported the ARF as the key regional security forum, possibly because the ARF had demonstrated over many years that it would operate wholly by consensus and would not take up difficult specific issues.
Against this background, Obama in November 2011 brought to fruition his decisions to support decisively two different multilateral organizations. On the economic and trade side, the president declared that America hopes by December 2012 to see the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), now being negotiated, become a high-quality trade and investment platform that will include the major economies of the Asia-Pacific. The TPP is being structured around principles America champions in terms of transparency, protection of intellectual property, labor rights, environmental protection, and so forth (these could be considered to be "WTO plus"). While Obama noted that all who accept its principles will be welcome to join, the TPP principles differ greatly from those that guide most Chinese actions in the economic and trade arena. China is not among the initial group of countries negotiating to establish the TPP.