WASHINGTON • United States officials are looking to superheroes in their quest to preserve Asia's post-war security order in the face of an increasingly assertive China.
"If Batman had a ship, this'd be it," Admiral Harry Harris, head of US Pacific Command, told a crowd of Asia specialists in Washington last month as he pointed to a slide of a DDG-1000 Zumwalt-class destroyer, the US Navy's largest and stealthiest.
"Everything that is new and cool that the United States is developing is going to the Asia-Pacific."
Adm Harris' account of the military component of Mr Barack Obama's "rebalance to Asia" comes as the US President prepares to host leaders from the 10-member Asean at the Sunnylands estate in California next week.
Mr Obama has sought to tighten US influence after the administrations of Mr George Bush and others focused more on the Middle East and elsewhere. There is an economic imperative too: China overtook Japan to become Asean's biggest trading partner in 2009, after displacing the US a year earlier.
Holding the summit at the 81ha estate will allow leaders to spend informal time with Mr Obama, said Mr Ernest Bower, senior adviser at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.
Mr Obama chose Sunnylands for extended "shirt-sleeve" talks with newly minted Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013.
"The White House sees Sunnylands as a very special treatment, where the President of the United States is leaving Washington and is going to spend two full days exclusively focused on leaders," Mr Bower said.
By 2030, the disputed South China Sea "will be virtually a Chinese lake" as a result of China's near-constant presence and enhanced regional prestige, according to a Congress-mandated CSIS report released last month.
That would upend a security order in place since Japan's defeat in World War II left the US as the undisputed master of Asia's seas.
"The Bush administration was criticised for having this benign neglect towards the region because of his preoccupation with Afghanistan and the Middle East," said Professor Dewi Fortuna Anwar, a political scientist at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences. "You cannot sustain a relationship when you turn around and only pay attention when you need friends."
Mr Obama is seeking Asean unity over China's claims to more than 80 per cent of the South China Sea, which are contested by countries like Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, said Mr Alexander Sullivan, an associate fellow at the Centre for a New American Security in Washington.
In the past two years China has reclaimed more than 1,214ha in the sea, which annually hosts US$5 trillion(S$7 trillion) in shipping, and is building military facilities there.
While the Philippines and Vietnam have protested, other Asean states have been more willing to accommodate China and its economic muscle.
"The US is trying to get Asean to speak with one voice on the South China Sea issue," Mr Sullivan said. "It is not competing to divide the body in the same way that I think China is."