Honolulu - President Barack Obama's campaign to reassert the
United States as a Pacific power, only days old, has triggered a sharp reaction
from China, presaging tough times ahead as the two economic giants vie for
Obama, beginning a nine-day Pacific trip, wielded rhetoric
and promoted policies that seemed destined to generate friction with Beijing
and test the limits of the two countries' on-again, off-again cooperation.
The growing rivalry between the United States, the Pacific's
traditional military power, and China, its economic engine, could also
complicate a delicate balancing act played by Asia's smaller nations.
While insisting he wanted stable ties with China, Obama in
quick succession demanded it "play by the rules" of international
trade, said its export-driven powerhouse "throws the whole world economy
out of balance", and insisted it act like a "grown-up", rather
than posturing as a developing nation.
China reacted with uncharacteristic speed, dismissing
demands that it float its currency freely and saying it would abide only by
trade rules that it helped negotiate.
"First we have to know whose rules we are talking
about," Pang Sen, a deputy director general at China's Foreign Ministry,
told a news conference not long after Obama spoke.
"If the rules are made collectively through agreement
and China is a part of it, then China will abide by them. If rules are decided
by one or even several countries, China does not have the obligation to abide
Chinese leaders were not happy, either, with Obama's
pressing of a Pacific free trade area sponsored by the United States which does
not, for now, include Beijing.
Japan, Canada and Mexico each said they were interested in
joining the United States and eight other nations in negotiating the
Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), with a goal of completing the framework next
Asia's small and mid-size nations have long seen themselves
caught between China's economic behemoth and the security blanket provided by
US military forces spread from Hawaii to the Korean peninsula and beyond.
As China grows more aggressive in its territorial claims,
some of those countries have edged closer to Washington for shelter.
This week, they seemed to cautiously welcome Obama's pledge
to look more across the Pacific, after a decade of American foreign policy tied
to the sands of Iraq and the mountains of the Hindu Kush.
China's Asian neighbours "gravitate to China as just
about the only remaining hope for continuing economic growth, while looking
quite anxiously to the US for strategic assurance," Simon Tay, chairperson
of the Singapore Institute for International Affairs, wrote in a published
commentary on the Today on Sunday news portal.
Singapore - a multiethnic, majority Chinese island state in
Southeast Asia - epitomises the Asian balancing act of keeping close ties to
both Washington and Beijing.
Speaking to business executives on Friday, Singapore Prime
Minister Lee Hsien Loong voiced support for the US military in Asia, whose
command headquarters are in Honolulu. "They help to keep the peace and we
want them there," he said.
"I believe America understands what a big stake it has
in Asia," Lee said. "But you are a hyper-power. You have interests
all over the world - in Europe, in the Middle East, in Afghanistan.
"Asia is an important part of the world but it is not
the only part of the world, so we have to share you with other
Thorny issues at Bali
Compounding the potential for friction is the fact that the
Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit here may turn out to be the easier of
this month's two Asian summits. It focuses on economics, where countries agree
on a lot of things, and eschews divisive political and security issues.
Those thorny issues will be taken up next weekend on another
idyllic resort island - Bali - where Obama, Chinese President Hu Jintao, and largely
the same cast of regional leaders will meet for the East Asian Summit.
"China's posture in the region is on everybody's mind,
including the Southeast Asian nations and the United States - and this
balancing that the whole region is doing is a defining element of the
Asia-Pacific region today," said Jamie Metzl, executive vice president of
the New York-based Asia Society.
Looming in Bali is the issue of the South China Sea.
Beijing claims that entire maritime region, which contains
rich energy and fisheries resources, pitting it against coastal states like
Vietnam and the Philippines in a test of wills that has seen violent clashes in
China's more assertive stance over the maritime dispute and
a military expansion fuelled by double-digit economic growth means that for
US-China ties "the trajectory at least has become much more
volatile," said Nick Consonery, China analyst at EurAsia Group in
Obama and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will use the
days between the Honolulu and Bali summits to visit formal American security
allies in the region. Obama heads to Australia, where the two countries will
unveil a beefed-up alliance. Clinton travels to the Philippines and Thailand.
Metzl sees the economic and security policies as
complementary responses to China.
"Concern about the kind of role that China hopes to
play is rising across the region and that's why you're seeing the countries
joining with the United States on TPP and you're seeing the increased welcome
of the US military," he said.