China's wary eye watches Obama dance from the wings

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 April, 2014, 11:47pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 April, 2014, 6:35pm

Foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang pursed his lips when asked about China's reaction to US President Barack Obama's decision to skip the country in his official visit to Asia.

"As to [his skipping China], I want to recite this: Whether you meet me or not, I will be there."

This famous line from a Tibetan poem made popular by the 2010 romantic comedy If You Are the One 2 carries a deeper meaning to observers in China.

First it was a subtle reminder to other Asian nations: American presidents come and American presidents go. China remains forever.

It also was a message to the White House: We are ready to talk.

China and the US are trying to avoid any steps that surprise each other

The colourful line is a departure from the usual formal and turgid language used by the foreign ministry and triggered waves of interpretation.

Chinese officials have cooly watched Obama's tour in Asia.

Chinese observers said Beijing saw Obama's reassurance of America's commitment to its Asian allies as "well calibrated and measured".

The American president's week-long trip could help alleviate concerns that the US commitment to the region was flagging - an unease that began last October when Obama cancelled a trip to the region because of the budget crisis in Washington.

But Beijing was unlikely to get riled by anything he had said or done on the trip, they said.

"The United States is capable of being a dominant power in the region," said Jia Qingguo, an international relations professor at Peking University. "On the other hand, the US is not willing to be in conflict with China because of tensions between China and its neighbours."

Obama kicked off his trip in Japan last Wednesday by saying that the uninhabited Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea, which are also claimed by Japan, where they are known as the Senkakus, were covered by the US-Japan security treaty.

In the Philippines, Obama said he supported Manila's push for international arbitration to resolve a maritime territorial dispute with China. This came after Manila and Washington signed a 10-year accord that allows American military forces greater access to Philippine bases.

"I think both China and the US are trying to avoid any steps that surprise each other, especially on sensitive issues," Jia said.

Obama tried to balance relations between Asian allies and the Sino-US relationship when he appeared with Japanese Prime Minister Shintzo Abe. Obama called on Japan to refrain from ratcheting up tensions with China. In Manila, Obama said the US had a constructive relationship with Beijing.

The Chinese foreign ministry's temperate remarks have highlighted that Washington's alliance with Tokyo is a cold war remnant that should not affect the interest of other nations.

An editorial in China's state-run Global Times said Washington was trying to "kill two birds with one stone by supporting its allies while avoiding irritating China, a delicate way to maintain the balance between business profits and political influence".

Zhang Baohui, a security specialist at Lingnan University, said Beijing's policies towards the US and neighbouring countries would remain unchanged.

"While the US is utilising its security leverage in the Asia Pacific region, China will use its economic power to step up co-operation with neighbours," Zhang said. "But China will be cautious against using the military in the region because it would heighten tensions and put its peaceful-rise image at risk and affect momentum for regional co-operation."

Zhang said the deployment of the Chinese military against Southeast Asian nations, especially the Philippines, would serve as a pretext for a greater US presence, affecting China's position in the region.

Li Jie, a researcher at the PLA Navy's Military Academy, said Obama did not offer any new direction for US policies in Asia, but Beijing would be keeping a close eye on Washington.