The two powers
The high-profile summits held this week in Bali and then in Bandar Seri Begawan were described in many media reports in stark, dualistic terms—an absent United States, a rising China. In fact, the leaders’ meetings of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation in Indonesia and of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and its regional partners in Brunei showed that a multipolar world was truly emerging. But the world’s two biggest economies and military powers dominated the discussion.
There is no question that much of the attention was on China. Not only did the new president, Xi Jinping, share the spotlight with his photogenic wife, a first in Chinese diplomacy, the Chinese were also thoroughly prepared for the summits. The Quartz business site lists at least four initiatives Xi gave his imprimatur to this week: detailing plans for increased economic and political cooperation with Australia; pledging to triple Chinese-Malaysian trade within four years; investing over $32 billion in Indonesia; and, not least, signaling ever closer ties with Taiwan. “We cannot hand those problems down from generation to generation,” Xi told a former Taiwanese official.
There is no question, too, that much of the talk in both summits centered on the absence of US President Barack Obama, who was constrained by the Tea-Party-inspired shutdown of the American federal government to stay behind in Washington. Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s polite but forceful comment was much quoted: “Obviously we prefer a US government that is working than one that is not, and we prefer a US President who is able to travel and fulfill his international duties to one that is preoccupied with domestic preoccupations.”
US Secretary of State John Kerry was reduced to offering reassurances of American commitment to its Asian partners and excuses about the shutdown; it was, he said, merely “a moment in politics.”
The dynamics of US-Chinese relations meant that, with Obama’s absence, the US initiative to promote the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade bloc suffered a major setback. Obama had been needed to push the first members of the TPP, which pointedly excludes China, to conclude negotiations by the end of the year. Without Obama, Malaysia now had even more reason to be reluctant about joining, and any chance that South Korea would announce its readiness to join the bloc in Bali became even dimmer.
A contrarian piece in Global Post trained a skeptical eye on the claims of an American vacuum: “When President Barack Obama announced that he was canceling his trip to Asia due to the US government shutdown, commentators reacted as if he had said that America was giving up, going home, and abandoning its Asian friends and allies to China.” But “the reality is that US military and economic involvement in Asia is growing, and America’s allies understand that.”
But while almost no one doubts that there is in fact an American “pivot” to Asia, the current state of domestic politics in the United States—where, despite their grossly irresponsible conduct, the Republicans in the US Congress look set to retain their majority in 2014 and even in 2016—puts into question the future of that deliberate repositioning. When the issue becomes one of funds, it is only natural for the many countries that depend on an American security umbrella in Asia as a kind of rainy-day protection against China to reassess their understanding about US commitment.
Another quote from Singapore’s Lee was also much discussed. “America has to continue to be engaged in this region because it plays a very important role which no other country can replace, not China, not Japan, not any other power. And that is something which we continue to encourage in every opportunity.” Lee was not making a brief for American leadership, but rather for US-China engagement. “In the broader sense, the security and stability in Asia Pacific depends on the key relationships between the super powers and big powers in the region, and the most important relationship is that between America and China—it has to be managed stably and responsibly on both sides with a long-term perspective.”
This relationship between the two powers has major implications for managing the disputes that continue to occupy our time and attention, the competing territorial claims in what President Aquino calls “the sea known by many names.”
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