A new ‘Great Game’ in Asia-Pacific arena arouses the antagonism and the rivalries between old and new world powers. The future of the United States is closely connected to and dependent on the Asian geopolitical chessboard. Therefore, last week, President Obama said in his speech to the Australian Parliament that:
Let there be no doubt: in the Asia-Pacific in the 21st century, the United States of America is all in. With most of the world’s nuclear powers and some half of humanity, Asia will largely define whether the century ahead will be marked by conflict or cooperation, needless suffering or human progress. The United States is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay.
‘We are here to stay’ is a strong message directed to the great rising power, China, the most ambitious player in the competition to gain the regional hegemony in Asia-Pacific. The Sino-US relations, oscillating between competition and cooperation, seem to have inaugurated a new course. Officially, Barack Obama emphasizes the importance of the US-China cooperation and recognizes Beijing’s balancing role in the region:
We’ve seen that China can be a partner, from reducing tensions on the Korean peninsula to preventing proliferation. We’ll seek more opportunities for cooperation with Beijing, including greater communication between our militaries to promote understanding and avoid miscalculation.
On the unofficial side, Obama’s strategic goals are glaring and China knows them: Washington aims to regain the leadership in the Far East, implicitly carrying out a policy of containment of Beijing’s political and economic influence. The United States define their role in Asia just when in the West people live out through the peak of global crisis,with Euroland looking to China, already the largest single holder of U.S. government debt, and to its 3200 billion USD foreign exchange reserves as the only resource for the rehabilitation of the public debt.
The first significant sign of U.S. interests in Asian geopolitical space is the announcement of the imminent dispatch of a military aircraft and up to 2.500 marines to Darwin in northern Australia, only 500 miles from Indonesia. The U.S. goal is to strengthen alliances with Japan, South Korea and the Philippines and protect core U.S. interests across Asia. By 2016, the number of American troops stationed in Asia will be staggering: 2500 marines stationed in Australia, 50000 already stationed in Japan and 28000 stationed in South Korea.
New Asia-Pacific order
The new chapter of the Washington’s Asian policy started at the last Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Honolulu. During the APEC Forum, which brought together 21 Pacific Rim Countries, the ‘member economies’ that seek to promote free trade and economic cooperation throughout the Asia-Pacific region, President Obama has defined new conditions to Beijing government. Obama insisted that China should appreciate its official currency, the renminbi. A faster rise of its value would balance global trade and make American goods more competitive, but also it would discourage the inflow of foreign capital to China. ‘We’re going to continue to be firm that China operate by the same rules as everyone else. We don’t want them taking advantage of the United States‘, stated President Obama.
While the United States are not afraid of China’s rise, China begins to worry about Obama’s recent announcement of the achievement of the broad outlines of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, an Asia-Pacific regional trade agreement negotiated among the United States and 8 other partners (Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam). The TPP will exclude China and Russia from this free trade regional area in Asia-Pacific, with a related market of 500 million consumers.
China’s response: ASEAN + 3 is the keystone of Asian development
Beijing’s swift response arrived at the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit, held recently in Bali, Indonesia. Premier Wen Jiabao has summarized in four key-points his proposal for South-East Asia’s development, highlighting how China intends to strengthen multilateral relations and participation in regional organizations in maintaining equilibrium and balance in the region.
First, we should enhance strategic consultation and mutual trust. We are committed to a policy of building good-neighborly relations and partnership with our neighboring countries, and we abide by the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia. The disputes over the South China Sea between the relevant countries in the region have existed for many years. They should be settled through friendly consultation and negotiation between the sovereign states directly concerned.
The second China’s priority is the regional economic development and a common coordination of strategies:
Second, we should pursue economic development and social progress as a top priority. Both China and ASEAN Countries are in a crucial stage of development. We should better coordinate development strategies, draw on mutual strengths and promote cooperation in more fields and at a higher level.
The third key-proposal of Wen’s speech at the Bali Summit points out that the development of cooperation in Asia should be addressed through the mechanism of ASEAN 10 +3 (China, Japan and South Korea). This is a way to strengthen the partnership with Japan and South Korea, historical allies of the United States. On the other hand, in these days the United States and Russia for the first time take part at the East Asia Summit and aim to strengthen the mechanism of ASEAN +8, to counterbalance China and ASEAN +3.
Third, we should adhere to ASEAN centrality in promoting East Asian cooperation. China supports ASEAN integration and community building and welcomes a stronger and more influential ASEAN. We are confident that ASEAN is fully capable of leading East Asian cooperation. China will open a permanent mission to ASEAN next year. We will continue to support ASEAN and work with it, and we will continue to take 10+1 as the foundation, 10+3 as the main vehicle and the East Asia Summit as an important supplement in pursuing East Asian cooperation.
In the last fourth point of his speech, Wen Jiabao said that China will seek to strengthen cooperation through multilateral approach.
Fourth, we should uphold our common Interests in the multilateral field.
Undoubtedly, the main passage of Wen’s stronger new Asian policy is summarized in this sentence: ‘China will never seek hegemony and is opposed to all hegemonic acts.‘ The reference is to the strategic and geopolitical ambitions of the United States in Asia, especially compared to the frequent interference in inter-regional disputes between China, Vietnam, the Philippines over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea between China and Japan in Diaoyu-Senkaku in East China Sea.
South China Sea: core interests and sovereignty
The South China Sea is Beijing’s core interest, with China claiming its ‘indisputable sovereignty’ on the myriad of islands, rocks and vast natural resources, especially hydrocarbures, sited in the subsurface sea. With the Dong Feng-21 D, also called the ‘aircraft carrier killer’, a ballistic missile with range of 3000 km, and the increasing military spending, Beijing government could shift Pacific power balance. China has turned its ‘Continental Policy’ into a new “Oceans Policy”, oriented to shake the balance of powers in the maritime space through a strengthening of military outposts in the South China Sea.
This refinement of Chinese military technology has increased the concern of Japanese and Philippines, who have called upon a U.S. intervention. At the 17th ministerial meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum in July 2010 U.S. State Secretary, Hillary Clinton stated:
The United States, like every other nation, has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons, and respect for international law in the South China Sea. We share these interests with not only ASEAN members and ASEAN Regional Forum participants but with other maritime nations and the broader international community.
It is difficult to make predictions on the future development of Sino-U.S. relations with regard to the effort to achieve strategic supremacy in the Asia-Pacific region. One thing is certain: participation in regional organizations seems to have become the keystone in establishing a new balance of power in Asia.