Obama’s no-show felt by longstanding U.S. allies in emerging ‘Chinese theme park’

John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — People’s Republic of China president Xi Jinping went on a charm offensive in Southeast Asia, preening and posturing about the widening role Beijing plans to play in the business of this vital region. United States President Barack Obama was stuck back in Washington pouting and posturing over the partial government shutdown but making few effective moves towards Congressional Republicans to resolve the crisis.

Despite the Obama administration’s rhetorically heralded pivot to the Pacific, the People’s Republic not unexpectedly is playing political hard ball in its geographic back yard.

Li Keqiang, China’s premier, at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Bali on Oct. 8.  /Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images
Li Keqiang, China’s premier, at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Bali on Oct. 8. /Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images

The recent Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference in Indonesia provided the setting for regional states and global movers to come together for a Pacific trade pow-wow. All the players were there Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines, South Korea and naturally Japan, Russia and China. So too is the United States, and President Obama’s appearance was awaited.

Yet at the last minute, given the government shutdown, the U.S President was a no show, choosing instead to play the sky-is-falling game inside the Washington beltway. Though Obama’s move was understandable for Americans, it was perceived as just short of a slur for Southeast Asians wanting to see strong and clear American power and resolve in a region that is starting to look like a Chinese theme park.

APEC’s members represent a regional powerhouse accounting for 40 percent of the world’s population, 55 percent of global GDP and 44 percent of international trade. Trade among APEC countries reached $11 trillion in 2011.

China’s new leader Xi Jinping had the stage to himself, basking in the limelight of Beijing’s assertive commercialism, economic clout, and growing political standing. Xi stated, “China cannot develop in isolation of the Asia-Pacific and the Asia-Pacific cannot develop without China.” Subtext here is that Beijing wants to marginalize well established American business in the region, and in the longer term, wedge Washington’s political standing out of Southeast Asia.

Besides emerging as a dominant force at the APEC conference, Xi was showboating through the Southeast Region before the confab. While in Jakarta the Chinese leader announced a $50 billion banking initiative. While in Malaysia, the PRC president underscored the growing trade between Beijing and Kuala Lumpur government.

While this is all quite logical on the business front, one must recall that most Southeast Asian nations, especially Indonesia and Malaysia, have not had, putting it diplomatically, comfortable relations with China, particularly given how successful Chinese ethnics in the region, especially Indonesia, have often been demonized by local governments. Singapore, a largely ethnic Chinese city state, is first to recognize this but equally warns about Beijing’s growing political influence.

Thus China is trying to both gain closer ties to resource- rich states and at the same time show Beijing as the protector of “overseas” Chinese communities.

Former Philippine President Fidel Ramos wrote, “China appears determined to reshape the international security and the economic system that the U.S. built after WWII and has led ever since, a system that has long protected America’s Asian allies. As China’s power grows, the U.S. is finding it increasingly difficult to preserve a regional balance of power that is favorable to its interests.”

There’s no question that deeper Middle Eastern focus and military involvement in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks on America, have blurred but not shifted Washington’s focus from vital interests in the Pacific . During America’s deep geopolitical preoccupation with Afghanistan/Iraq and a host of percolating crises in the Middle East, in parallel, China has, through a growing economy and more aggressive political policy, been able to sustain its political posturing and territorial claims in the South China Sea, (Spratly and Paracel islands), and East China Sea (Diaoyutai/Senkaku islands). Equally China, has shown growing commercial clout throughout Southeast Asia to bring the region into the PRC’s sphere of influence.

Yet trade winds could be shifting. The World Bank has lowered East Asian growth forecasts; China’s growth for this year is projected at a still impressive 7.5 percent, but down from an earlier estimate of 8.3 percent. An economic downshift combined with endemic corruption inside China can spell trouble for Beijing’s rulers.

As a Pacific power, only a fool would count the USA out, but the rhetoric is not matched by reality either on the ground or the high seas. America’s military cuts and the corresponding expansion of missions and responsibilities with fewer ships is part of the problem. Today’s U.S. Navy strength stands at just under 300 ships or about half of the Navy’s strength during the Reagan era.

Territorial disputes and tensions aside, the USA’s political/economic presence brings significant balance to the strategic Southeast Asian region. In the meantime, Presidents Xi and Obama will posture for the limelight.

John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for WorldTribune.com. He is the author of Transatlantic Divide ; USA/Euroland Rift (University Press, 2010).