Pivot to Asia


US President Barack Obama’s first foreign policy trip abroad since his reelection to reassert American influence in Southeast Asia to counter China’s rising economic and military power in the region ran into strong head winds of tension churned by territorial disputes between Beijing and smaller littoral states in the South China Sea.

Tension flared up on Monday at the summit meeting of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Phnom Penh. Asean leaders plunged into heated discord over how the organization would handle conflicting claims between China and four Asean members—the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam. The leaders had hoped to present a solid front on the territorial disputes but found themselves hopelessly fractured on the issue of how to deal with China.

The day before, on Sunday, they decided to ask China to start formal talks to draft a legally binding code of conduct in the West Philippine Sea (the Philippines’ name for the South China Sea) to avert armed conflict over the disputed territories. The decision proved provocative to China, which had earlier warned that the summit should not be overshadowed by a dispute, “as the situation is under control and countries involved can resolve differences themselves.” This warning underscored China’s preferred approach to conflict resolution—bilateral, rather than multilateral, talks, a mode that favors China, allowing it to bully weaker neighbors. It had also warned the United States against intervening in the disputes.

The Asean move to close ranks behind the multilateral approach crumbled in the face of China’s pressure and threats. It came as Asean wound down its two-day meeting and as it prepared to start a dialogue between Obama and outgoing Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in another and related forum, the East Asia summit. The expanded-dialogue participants included Japan, India, Russia, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.

The move sparked a heated debate between President Aquino of the Philippines and Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia, an ally of China. It also exposed the deep divisions in Asean on the issue of a unilateral or bilateral approach. The clash was provoked by a report of Cambodia, the summit host, on Sunday that Asean leaders had agreed not to “internationalize” the disputes and would continue negotiations between the bloc and China. Mr. Aquino heatedly disputed the report on Monday, insisting that no such consensus had been reached.

He took exception to Hun Sen’s remarks that the Asean countries had agreed to negotiate the West Philippine Sea dispute within an “Asean-China” framework. “The Asean route is not the only route,” Mr. Aquino said at the Asean-Japan summit, one of the side meetings. He understood the Hun Sen statement to mean the exclusion of other international forums to resolve territorial disputes, including the United Nations’ Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).

At the Asean summit, Mr. Aquino also asked the United States to be involved in the discussions. He spoke at a session attended by Obama. “It is especially vital to have the world’s largest economy involved in the discussions considering the interconnectedness of our milieu,” he said. These remarks were expected to anger China. The fractures at the Asean summit opened the way to a tumultuous encounter between Obama and Wen at the East Asian summit, within the full view of Asean leaders and their dialogue partners.

Obama’s Asian swing, visiting Thailand, Burma (Myanmar), and Cambodia, is described by White House officials as demonstrating US clout in Asia. This is expressed through the foreign policy to “pivot” to Asia, a strategy shift aimed at expanding US presence in the Asia-Pacific, in the face of China’s rising economic and military power.

The East Asian summit will mark the first meeting of US and Chinese leaders after the US presidential election and the selection of Xi Jinping as secretary general of the Chinese Communist Party at its 18th national party congress last Thursday.

Obama’s trip closely followed the Chinese Communist Party’s congress, in which Hu Jintao, the outgoing  president, called for China to become a “maritime power.”  Hu told the opening session of the congress: “It should … resolutely safeguard China’s maritime rights and interests, and build China into a maritime power.” The Financial Times reported that Hu’s speech “will fuel concerns among its neighbors and in the US over how it deals with a host of territorial disputes.”

A recent article in Bloomberg explains Obama’s Asia pivot policy. It says Obama’s whirlwind visit to Asia takes place against a backdrop of tension and uncertainty. China and Japan are “at daggers drawn over a handful of rocky islets surrounded by potentially rich deposits of oil and gas.”

It also notes the “territorial tensions between China and a number of its Souheast Asian neighbors in the South China Sea.”

As US officials have taken pains to point out, however, America has reasons far beyond China’s military spending to seek a bigger presence in Asia. The region now accounts for 25 percent of US exports (supporting an estimated 2.4 million jobs) and 35 percent of its imports. By 2030, according to one estimate, it will account for 49 percent of the global population, 43 percent of the gross domestic product, 35 percent of trade, and 38 percent of market capitalization. “Failure to deepen US engagement with Asia would be strategic malpractice on a grand scale.”

Follow Us

Follow us on Facebook Follow on Twitter Follow on Twitter

Recent Stories:

Complete stories on our Digital Edition newsstand for tablets, netbooks and mobile phones; 14-issue free trial. About to step out? Get breaking alerts on your mobile.phone. Text ON INQ BREAKING to 4467, for Globe, Smart and Sun subscribers in the Philippines.

Short URL: http://opinion.inquirer.net/?p=41210

Tags: amando doronila , Asean Summit , Barack Obama , Cambodia , column , Diplomacy

Copyright © 2014, .
To subscribe to the Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper in the Philippines, call +63 2 896-6000 for Metro Manila and Metro Cebu or email your subscription request here.
Factual errors? Contact the Philippine Daily Inquirer's day desk. Believe this article violates journalistic ethics? Contact the Inquirer's Reader's Advocate. Or write The Readers' Advocate:
c/o Philippine Daily Inquirer Chino Roces Avenue corner Yague and Mascardo Streets, Makati City, Metro Manila, Philippines Or fax nos. +63 2 8974793 to 94


  • Sayyaf man linked to Sipadan kidnapping falls
  • Drilon calls for sobriety as mudslinging, witch hunts loom due to pork scam
  • S. Korea ferry toll hits 150 as search gets tougher
  • If Napoles names Aquino allies, they’ll be brought to bar of justice – Palace
  • Lacson says diamond-studded earring snatched from wife fake
  • Sports

  • Wizards beat Bulls in OT to take 2-0 series lead
  • Pacers rally past Hawks 101-85 to even series
  • David Moyes out as Manchester United manager
  • Nadal to face fellow Spaniard at Barcelona Open
  • Defensive Chelsea holds Atletico in scoreless draw
  • Lifestyle

  • Haneda International Airport: A destination on its own
  • Wanted: Beauty queen with a heart that beats for the environment
  • Kim Atienza: At home with art and design
  • Life lessons I want to teach my son
  • Sweet party for Andi Manzano
  • Entertainment

  • Ex-Fox exec denies allegations in sex abuse suit
  • Kris Aquino backtracks, says Herbert Bautista and her are ‘best friends’
  • Summer preview: Chris Pratt enters a new ‘Galaxy’
  • Bon Jovi helps open low-income housing in US
  • Summer movie preview: Bay reboots ‘Transformers’
  • Business

  • McDonald’s 1Q profit slips as US sales decline
  • SEC approves SM’s P15B retail bond offer
  • $103M Vista Land bonds tendered for redemption
  • Oil slips to $102 as US crude supplies seen rising
  • SC stops Meralco power rate hike anew
  • Technology

  • Engineers create a world of difference
  • Bam Aquino becomes Master Splinter’s son after Wiki hack
  • Mark Caguioa lambasts Ginebra teammates on Twitter
  • Brazil passes trailblazing Internet privacy law
  • New York police Twitter campaign backfires badly
  • Opinion

  • One-dimensional diplomacy: A cost-benefit analysis of Manila’s security deal with Washington
  • No ordinary illness
  • Reforest mountains with fire trees and their kind
  • Day of the Earth
  • When will Chinese firm deliver new coaches?
  • Global Nation

  • No word yet on inking of US-PH defense pact during Obama visit
  • Filipina, 51, shot dead by 24-year-old American boyfriend
  • China, rivals sign pact to ease maritime tensions
  • Visa-free US trip? Do not believe it, says consulate
  • Obama visit to Asia seen as counterweight to China
  • Marketplace