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America's return to Asia: Old hegemony or new engagement?

Updated On: Nov 29, 2011

In this week's featured commentary, SIIA Chairman Simon Tay examines USA's recent and upcoming moves in the Asian region. Many suspect that US presence in the region is a conscious decision to counter-balance China's growing power in Asia. 

This commentary was featured in the TODAY (Singapore) newspaper on 29 November, 2011 and South China Morning Post on 30 November, 2011.

This week, United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton makes a historic high-profile visit to Myanmar even as Asians assess a flurry of American moves in the region. The Obama administration has energetically re-engaged Asia when, facing many domestic challenges, a post-crisis America might easily have turned inwards.

An engaged America is better than an isolated one. But Asians question the nature and intention of the American return to the region. 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 Barack Obama's Australian stopover marked establishing a military base with 2,500 marines on the Asian periphery.

Many - especially in Beijing - read American return to the region as being aimed at countering China.

Some 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, Mr 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 John F 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 has also re-energised 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 criticised by Beijing, where many perceive an intention to shut China out.

For Myanmar, the twisting path for Mrs Clinton's visit has been paved over the past two years by Senator Jim Webb and Assistant Secretary of State 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.

Notably, one step recently taken by the Myanmar government was to abruptly halt the Chinese-led construction of a massive dam.

Adding this together, when Mrs Clinton speaks about a return to Asia, some may wonder if Washington 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. To this question, Mr Obama's moves this month now add another, just as important: What is the nature and intention of the American return?

Protecting American interests and asserting its priorities are givens. 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-centred politics and win-lose economics to contain China.

An American engagement with Asia is important to both sides. But the terms of the engagement now matter more than ever to Asians. Balancing the region's different powers was never going to be easy and will now become even more challenging.

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.