With the Obama administration's high-profile pivot toward Asia this week — pushing for a new free-trade agreement with at least eight other countries and securing military-basing rights in Australia — China is feeling isolated, criticized, encircled and increasingly like a target of U.S. moves.
With the Obama administration’s high-profile pivot toward Asia this week — pushing for a new free-trade agreement with at least eight other countries and securing military-basing rights in Australia — China is feeling isolated, criticized, encircled and increasingly like a target of U.S. moves.
China’s nervousness is compounded by unease that a meeting Friday and Saturday of East Asian countries in Bali, Indonesia, will become the setting for renewed U.S. criticism of China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.
The East Asia Summit will be the second gathering in a week that brings President Obama and senior Chinese officials together for a regional meeting. It follows an economic summit in Hawaii last weekend that left Chinese officials and analysts taken aback when the U.S. president said China needed to “play by the rules” in international trade.
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In advance of the Bali meeting, Liu Zhenmin, China’s deputy foreign minister, said it would be inappropriate for the South China Sea dispute to make its way onto the agenda. But in a speech to the Australian Parliament in Canberra on Thursday, Obama singled out “cooperation in the South China Sea” as being among the “shared challenges” to be discussed at the session.
Marines to Australia
Several countries in the region, notably the Philippines and Vietnam, have sought closer ties with the United States as a hedge against what they see as China’s aggressiveness. The announcement by Obama of a new agreement to base 2,500 Marines in Australia starting next year was aimed in part as a sign of a U.S. security commitment in Southeast Asia.
Regional tensions have risen in recent years as China asserted sovereignty over the South China Sea. That has joined long-standing territorial disputes in resource-rich waters near the coasts of Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines.
China’s military has become more active in the region. Officials in Manila have complained that Chinese forces entered Philippine waters or airspace six times this year, and Vietnam has complained that Chinese vessels cut the cables of ships conducting seismic surveys.
China has invested heavily in military modernization and has begun to deploy long-range aircraft and a more able deep-sea naval force, and it has asserted territorial claims to disputed islands that would give it broad sway over oil and gas rights in the East and South China seas.
In an address to the Australian Parliament on Thursday, Obama said he had “made a deliberate and strategic decision: as a Pacific nation, the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future.”
The president said the moves were not intended to isolate China, but were a sign that the United States had grown more wary of its intentions.
Obama also said the United States would seek “more opportunities for cooperation” with China, adding that the U.S. would “continue to speak candidly with Beijing about the importance of upholding international norms and respecting the universal human rights of the Chinese people.”
Points of friction
Among the friction points between the United States and China, a particular source of tension is the U.S. push for a new free-trade pact, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, which does not include China.
Chinese officials view the development of the TPP as a move to create a U.S.-dominated counterweight to a rival trade bloc of Southeast Asian countries plus China, Japan and South Korea, known as ASEAN plus Three.
The president said China would be welcomed into the new trade pact if it were willing to meet the free-trade standards for membership. But such standards would require China to let its currency rise in value, to better protect foreign producers’ intellectual-property rights and to limit or end subsidies to state-owned companies, all of which would require a major overhaul of China’s economic-development strategy.
At a news conference with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Obama said the U.S. does not fear China’s rise, but warned that Chinese leaders must “play by the rules of the road.
“So where China is playing by those rules, recognizing its new role, I think this is a win-win situation,” he said.
Obama’s continued criticism of the value of the Chinese currency — the renminbi, or yuan — has prompted some Chinese analysts to express concern that the two countries may be heading again for a period of tension, after several months of relatively cordial relations.
“President Obama wants to intensely push on all fronts,” said Zhu Feng, a professor at Peking University’s School of International Studies. “It’s very, very depressing. Of course, it’s targeting China. It’s a new East Asian strategy.”
Zhu said he feared the Chinese government would react to feeling isolated, particularly if the United States pursues the TPP free-trade agreement with Australia, Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, Peru, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam and, perhaps, Japan, without China being invited to join.
The one area where China could react is the economic arena, where the United States and China had lately been acting more cooperatively, even as they continued to disagree on currency valuation.
“What worries me for the moment is, economically, China’s backlash could be very serious,” Zhu said. “Economics has turned out to be common ground for both sides. Now I have to say security elements will complicate China’s view of economic engagement.”
Some analysts said China’s response to the United States’ new Asia posture is for the moment likely to be restrained. China is facing a leadership change in 2012, they noted, and China is unlikely to make any moves that might upset the choreographed transition.
The tougher language from the United States was expected by several analysts, as Obama enters re-election-campaign mode and does not want to be criticized by Republican rivals for being “soft” on China.
Several analysts also said the U.S. pivot toward Asia is coming from a position of weakness, not strength. With severe economic problems continuing at home and Europe struggling with projected low growth and the euro crisis, U.S. officials hope to take advantage of Asia’s growing markets and high growth rates.
As China sees it
“The unilateral U.S. maneuver to expand its influence in the region is noticeably motivated by opening up new markets in the region for U.S. goods and services so as to lower its domestic high jobless rates,” China’s official Xinhua news agency said in an editorial Thursday.
“Moreover, Obama, whose job-approval rating continues to slip, seems to be staking his re-election on high-profile diplomatic ambitions in Asia Pacific, as he is failing to bring America’s slack economy back to the path of strong growth in his first term.”
Material from The New York Times and Tribune Washington bureau is included in this report.