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Signals are not benign

Updated On: Dec 09, 2011

In this week's featured commentary, SIIA Chairman Simon Tay writes about what the USA's return to Asia might mean to countries in the region.

While facing many domestic challenges, the Obama administration seems to also be increasingly concerned with re-engaging Asia in a number of ways.  This re-engagement provides an interesting scenario for the future of Asia's growth and American influence in the region.  

This commentary first appeared in the Asia Weekly version of The China Daily paper on 9 December, 2011.

Signals are not benign

US return to Asia may focus on security-centred politics and win-lose economics to contain China
The historic visit to Myanmar last week by US State Secretary Hillary Clinton climaxes a flurry of American moves in the region.

The Obama administration has proclaimed that they have returned to Asia and their active engagement is remarkable when, facing many domestic challenges, a post-crisis America might easily have turned inward.

Some may feel that an engaged America is better than an isolated one. But many Asians question the nature and intention of the American return. Signals are not all together benign.

Hosting the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Hawaii and becoming the first American leader to participate in the East Asia Summit might seem traditional summitry. But controversies with China made headlines and President Obama’s Australian stopover marked establishing a military base with 2,500 marines on the Asian periphery.

Many read American return to the region as being aimed at countering Chinese influence in Asia. The veteran Australian Hugh White calls it the “Obama doctrine”. If that is the American intention, views among Asians will be divided.

Some may welcome this as Beijing has triggered sensitivities in the past year. This is not just in the South China Sea but also on the Korean Peninsula and with Japan over the Senkaku or Diaoyu islands. The Obama administration’s return to Asia is the result of a quite deliberate build-up over the last two years.

On his first 2009 trip, Obama promised to be the first ‘Pacific President’. Yet the American media accused him of being too soft in dealing with Asia. One US commentator likened his visit to Beijing to the young Kennedy being pushed around by hard-nosed Communists.

Since then, the US has reinvigorated old alliances and strengthened political and security ties with India, Indonesia and Vietnam.

Washington DC has also reenergized trade through the Trans-Pacific Partnership. This aims to integrate nine APEC economies, with Japan now keen to join. Yet the initiative has been strongly criticized by Beijing, where many perceive an intention to shut China out.

For Myanmar, the twisting path for Clinton’s visit has been paved over the past two years by Senator Jim Webb and Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell.

Coming after elections and moves towards a more participative system, the US can help prod the new government into further opening the erstwhile pariah state. But the US interest is also seen as countering Beijing’s influence.

Adding this together, when Clinton speaks about a return to Asia, some may wonder if Washington DC expects a return to their old role of dominance.

Strategically, a return to Asia may signal a return to assertiveness, and countering China. On economic issues, a post-crisis America may well assert that Asians have been unfair in trade and push for redress.

Sentiments in the broader American politic can push that way. Look at the Senate law calling China a currency manipulator, or Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who has blamed Beijing for costing the country millions of jobs.

As the US presidential campaign gathers momentum, the region and especially China may come into focus, and not necessarily in a positive way. Finger-pointing politics will be a tempting path to rally a domestic audience.

One central question about Asia’s future has been the nature of China as it grows more powerful. Obama’s moves this November now add another, just as important, question: what is the nature and intention of the American return?

Protecting American interests and asserting its priorities are given. But how the US defines and pursues those interests with China and Asia remains to be seen.

A new engagement with a win-win attitude and giving strategic assurance to the region would be positive. The potential danger is that the American return focuses on security-centered politics and win-lose economics to contain China. This would lead to problems not only for China but for the whole region.

An American engagement with Asia is important to both sides. But the terms of the engagement now matter more than ever to Asians.

Balancing different powers in a rising Asia was never going to be easy, and will now become even more challenging.

The author is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and author of Asia Alone: The Dangerous Post Crisis Divide from America.

For an online version of this article, go to China Daily's website.

Simon Tay
About the author: 

Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and author of Asia Alone: The Dangerous Post Crisis Divide from America.