US moves raise stakes with China
The US foreign policy shift that has come to be known as the 'pivot to Asia' has been much discussed, but little defined since being unveiled last November. Defence secretary Leon Panetta made the strategy's military dimension less cloudy in Singapore at the weekend, announcing that most of America's warships would be based in the region by the end of the decade. The purpose, he explained, was to bolster his country's role in an area perceived as vital to its future. It is a reason Americans will buy, although China sees it differently. To Beijing, the plan is mostly about containment.
For the growing tide of Chinese nationalists there can be little other way to view the US stationing 60 per cent of its fleet in the Pacific and Indian oceans and expanding military partnerships with Asian governments, most of which see China's rise suspiciously. Panetta was quick to try to allay China's concerns, insisting both countries had a common interest in promoting security and trade in the region. But his visit to Vietnam's strategic port of Cam Ranh Bay two days after the announcement spoke otherwise, as did his flying on to India, another country that borders China and has a territorial dispute with it. As Xinhua put it, this is no time for 'making waves'.
But China has not been caught off guard, nor should it be. Asia is the world's most vibrant region economically and holds the best chance of the US pulling itself from stagnation. US foreign policy has always been centred on self-interest and a diplomatic, political, strategic and military shift was inevitable. If there is to be any disquiet, it is at the manner in and speed with which Washington has shown its hand.
In quick succession, the US has joined and taken the lead of the fledgling Trans-Pacific Partnership, transforming it into its main regional trade initiative, announced its 'rebalancing towards Asia' and started deploying 2,500 marines to be permanently based in the Australian city of Darwin. With China's Southeast Asian neighbours meeting its rise with modernisation of their own militaries, renewed disputes over South China Sea territory between China and the Philippines and Vietnam, and the US strengthening alliances, conflict would seem to be looming. But Chinese leaders realise that the US, as the world's only superpower, has a serious stake in Asia and the Pacific. There is nothing they can do about it taking a more active regional role.
Increasing co-operation is the sensible way for China and the US to deal with changing circumstances. China has strong economic ties to the region and has stepped up efforts to improve diplomatic and military links. With its rise and intentions still eyed nervously, though, it can do much better. Nationalistic urges have to be ignored. Being transparent, courting neighbours and showing resolve for peace and regional growth through actions and deeds have to be priorities.