After Obama's Asian tour, Sino-US tensions still strained

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 April, 2014, 4:41am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 April, 2014, 4:41am

The message on each of the four stops of US President Barack Obama's just-ended Asian trip was the same: Washington wanted peace, stability and prosperity for the region. Allies Japan, South Korea and the Philippines and new strategic partner Malaysia were given promises that their interests would be protected, particularly where maritime disputes with China were concerned. The American leader tried to choose his words carefully so as not to worsen strained relations with Beijing. But as he headed for home yesterday, Sino-US tensions were as high as before he arrived.

Reassuring allies while appeasing China was never going to be easy. The US wants to protect its economic and strategic interests; its military rebalancing through moving forces to the region from the Middle East and Afghanistan is the centrepiece of the strategy. That approach is welcomed by Asian nations that rely on China for trade and investment, yet are worried about its rising power and perceived territorial ambitions. For Beijing, the thought that 60 per cent of the US' naval strength will one day be on its doorstep is understandably unacceptable.

Strategic pacts signed with Malaysia and the Philippines after promises to protect Japan against claimed Chinese provocations and South Korea from North Korean threats seemed to confirm China's suspicions. Obama's Malaysian visit was the first by an American leader in 48 years, unfreezing a chill brought about by the anti-American stance of former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad. The Philippines agreed to allow an increased American military presence. But that is not to say that Obama got his way at every stage of the tour.

A US push for a free-trade pact that includes all major countries in the region except China is no nearer. East Asian tensions remain as rife, perhaps even more so, after the pledges of American support. A recently agreed code for unplanned encounters at sea reduces the risk of conflict, but not the readiness for military action. The need for cool heads and diplomacy remain as necessary as before Obama's tour began.