Obama wakes up to China's challenge in Asia

The US leader makes his strongest speech yet warning of the "danger" of China's regional ambitions, but offers little that is new in the US' response.


Is China backing off? Some people think so, after the recent flurry of regional summitry from Apec in Beijing via the East Asian Summit in Naypyitaw to the Group of 20 (G-20) in Brisbane.

In moves like the climate deal with US President Barack Obama and the handshake, however awkward, with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, they detect signs of a more accommodating diplomacy from Chinese President Xi Jinping.

But not Mr Obama, who seems more worried about China than ever. In Brisbane during the G-20 meeting, he delivered his sternest warning yet about China's threat to peace and stability in Asia. In a remarkably toughly-worded speech, he urged regional countries not to accommodate China's leadership ambitions by compromising their core values and interests simply in order to curry favour and build trade with Beijing.

Two days later, as if to underscore US concerns, Australia laid out the red carpet for Mr Xi when he visited Canberra after the G-20. There, he finalised a new free trade agreement, and delivered a major speech of his own to the Australian Parliament. He spelt out in confident and reassuring, but quite uncompromising, terms his vision of China's future and its new role as "the big guy" in Asia.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott responded very warmly to Mr Xi's speech. He praised Mr Xi's commitment to democracy and his respect for international norms of good conduct, and rejected any suggestion that China's regional vision might give cause for any concerns. "When I listened to the President today," he commented later, "some of the shadows over our region and over our world lifted and the sun did indeed shine brightly."

All this went far beyond courtesy to an honoured guest, and was especially surprising from a leader who is even more pro-American than most Australians. It suggests that Mr Abbott is one of those who have fallen for Mr Xi's charm offensive, and still underestimates the seriousness of China's challenge to Asia's traditional US-led regional order.

Escalating rivalry

UNTIL recently, many people in Washington were making the same mistake.

Many influential US analysts and policymakers still doubted China's leadership ambitions. They argued that it remained too weak to challenge the US, its leaders were too preoccupied with domestic problems and its economic growth still depended too much on the stability that, they assume, only US leadership can provide.

These arguments helped to justify the buoyant hopes that last year's Sunnylands Summit between the two presidents had set a new and stable course for US-China relations. But after 18 months of escalating rivalry, it is clear to Washington just how serious China really is. Mr Xi's "new model of great power relations" which he promotes so tirelessly involves a major shift in regional power and influence, from the US to China. And, increasingly, it seems that this is precisely what is happening. That is probably why Mr Obama decided in Brisbane to expound so frankly his concerns about where China's ambitions would lead, and to reaffirm his determination to resist them. Indeed, his speech is key evidence of just how far American fears about China have grown since last year.

He referred more explicitly than ever before to "genuine dangers" that confront Asia and endanger its stability and prosperity. He warned specifically that "disputes over territory, remote islands and rocky shoals that threaten to spiral into confrontation" threaten Asia's entire future.

He said that Asia faced a stark choice between two visions of the region's future. "Do we move towards further integration, more justice, more peace? Or do we move towards disorder and conflict? Those are our choices - conflict or cooperation? Oppression or liberty?"

And Mr Obama made clear that he saw this as being, in essence, a choice between American and Chinese leadership in Asia.

He described that choice in stark terms. American leadership, he said, was based on the belief "that nations and peoples have the right to live in security and peace; that an effective security order for Asia must be based, not on spheres of influence, or coercion, or intimidation where big nations bully the small, but on alliances of mutual security, international law and international norms that are upheld, and the peaceful resolution of disputes".

He quite clearly implied that China's model of regional leadership is based on the opposite of all these things. And while he acknowledged the need to cooperate with China where US and Chinese interests coincide, he drew very clear limits on such cooperation, warning explicitly against doing deals with China that would compromise shared interests and values.

These passages provide the clearest acknowledgment we have yet seen that Washington now understands the seriousness of China's challenge to its leadership in Asia, and the most direct warning to China's neighbours in Asia of the dangers they face from China's growing power and ambition. Indeed, this is probably the most overtly anti-Chinese speech by any US president since before Richard Nixon met Mao Zedong in 1972.

Doubts about US pivot

THE key question now is what President Obama intends to do about it. He answered this by re-stating the "pivot" or "rebalance" policy which he first spelled out in Canberra three years ago, and reaffirming America's commitment to sustain its leadership role in Asia. "In good times and bad, you can count on the United States of America," he said. "No one should ever question our resolve or our commitment to our allies." But he also acknowledged that there had been doubts about the pivot's effectiveness.

Indeed, the fact that he had to deliver the kind of speech he did in Brisbane is testament to the legitimacy of those doubts.

Over the three years since the pivot was launched, China's challenge to US primacy in Asia has only grown, and America's position has weakened. And yet, Mr Obama proposed nothing new that might reverse this trend.

That means there is no reason to expect America's will to be any more successful in resisting China's challenge in Asia over the next few years than it has been so far. That suggests that the US needs to go back to the drawing board and rethink its future role in Asia from the ground up.

Hugh White is professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University, Canberra.

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