Regional stability all a matter of trust
Asia's strategic landscape looks markedly different after US President Barack Obama's trip to the region. On three high-profile occasions in eight days, he reasserted his nation's regional primacy and power, telling China in no uncertain terms that it had a competitor that was willing to do whatever it took to maintain its place. Alliances to Washington were made plain, clearly revealing the level of mistrust with Beijing's rise and seemingly turning the geopolitical tide. There is concern that the moves will cause fresh tension between the countries, but this need not be the case; more, they are a signal that China and the US should work more closely to ensure the security and stability of the Asia-Pacific region.
Beijing should not be surprised, nor has it been caught entirely off-guard. Obama's strategy is based on American self-interest - and the Asia-Pacific is where the fruits are most bountiful. It is the world's most economically vibrant region, where the US has most chance of dragging itself from economic malaise through trade and lowering its stagnant 9 per cent jobless rate. With the US almost out of Iraq and a deadline set for the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, the decision has also taken on a security dimension.
At the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum in Honolulu, the US put forward its vision of a free-trade zone, winning adherents while berating China for not playing by the rules on currency and trade issues. Shortly after in Canberra, Obama told Australia's Parliament that his nation was back and 'all in' in the Asia-Pacific, announcing that a permanent base for 2,500 American marines would be set up in the northern city of Darwin. That does not drastically change the already sturdy US military presence in East Asia, but it does drive home the message that the US has no intention of retreating.
Last weekend's East Asia Summit in Bali gave Beijing the most cause for a rethink, though. Premier Wen Jiabao went to the meeting vowing that the territorial dispute of the South China Sea would not be on the agenda, as it is seen by China as a bilateral matter. Obama ignored that, putting it centre-stage and winning the support of contesting nations. Given China's economic and military muscle and poor record in explaining its intentions and improving military transparency, the response of its neighbours was not surprising.
China's leaders realise that the US is the only superpower and it has a serious stake in Asia and the Pacific region. They do not see Obama's assertions as a threat or cause for conflict; there is nothing they can do about the US taking a more active regional role. To avoid misunderstandings, though, it is wise that both sides increase co-operation at all levels. That is the best way to build trust and to ensure regional security and stability.