China issues lurk behind Obama's visit to Asia

16:50, November 16, 2010      

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Between Nov. 4 and Nov. 14, U.S. President Barack Obama visited the four Asian countries of India, Indonesia, South Korea and Japan and attended the G20 Summit held in Seoul as well as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit held in Yokohama. This was Obama's second visit to Asia since he took office two years ago.

Although Obama did not step on Chinese soil this visit, China or China-related topics appeared on the schedule of every leg of his journey directly or indirectly. David Lampton, a noted China expert from the U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University, commented that the "China shadow" appeared in the speeches of every stop of Obama's visit.

Even before this visit, many international media groups had shown interests in the reason why Obama was visiting the Asian countries "around" China. Discussions regarding the United States' containment of China also became extremely hot.

During the visit, some of the comments made by Obama, such as "prosperity without freedom is just another form of poverty," were also considered as alluding to China. The "debate" between Obama and a CCTV reporter at a press conference held in Seoul was also exaggerated by some media groups to the level of "China and the United States confronting each other" and "Obama showing strength to China."

On the whole, the aim of Obama's visit to Asia was to implement his "Returning to Asia" policy, and what lies behind this policy is that the United States is worried about China's rise in Asia. After the 9-11 attacks, the United States has had its hands full with two wars and one crisis. The focus of its foreign policy has been on the Middle East for quite some time. They have greatly ignored Asia, "the most dynamic region of the world."

But China, as its economy skyrockets, is establishing tighter and more comprehensive relationships with the countries of the Asia-Pacific region and becoming more influential. The United States, which still faces difficulties from the international financial crisis and whose influence is weakening gradually, is becoming more and more worried that China will probably dominate Asia exclusively and drive out the United States from the region.

After Obama took office, the United States started to adjust its strategies. It not only kept showing its gesture of "returning to Asia" publicly, but also took a series of steps successively. After Obama took office, he immediately declared that the United States is an Asia-Pacific country and called himself the "first Pacific President" in U.S. history, and he also paid two visits to the Asia-Pacific region. Furthermore, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the Asia-Pacific region six times and made many speeches regarding the United State's Asian policies.

Meanwhile, they also accelerated their strategic layout in the region, while using the “Cheonan Incident” to strengthen its relationship with South Korea, using the “Diaoyu Island Dispute” between China and Japan to strengthen its relationship with Japan, and the "South China Sea Issue" to strengthen its relationship with Vietnam. The United States is publicly trying to "return to Southeast Asia" and its strategic military layout is also declining in the Asia-Pacific Region.

Previously, Clinton had just finished a 13-day trip to seven Asian countries and said during an Asia-Pacific policy speech in Hawaii before her trip that the United States will strengthen its engagement in the region by using three tools: its alliances, emerging partnerships and work with regional institutions. It will take three measures, which are shaping the future regional economy, underwriting regional security and carrying out value-oriented diplomacy, and following three steps: listening, cooperating, and leading.

Obama's trip to Asia was closely aligned with Clinton's policy speech. He visited not only Japan and South Korea, which are the United States' traditional allies, but also its new partners, India and Indonesia. Furthermore, he also attended two major regional institutions, APEC and the East Asia Summit, which the United States recently joined. In the context of faltering domestic economic recovery and a bitter defeat in the midterm elections, Obama and Clinton's high-profile intensive visits to the Asia-Pacific region were intended to show that the United States has turned its attention back to Asia and quickened the pace of "returning to Asia."

Admittedly, Obama’s visit to Asia was indeed partly intended to contain China, but we should conduct objective analysis confidently instead of over interpreting it. Looking at Obama's visit itself, we may see that he chose Japan and South Korea mainly because of the G20 and APEC summits, while visiting India was because he had broken scheduled appointments twice.

He visited China last year, and has met with Chinese President Hu Jintao seven times, not to mention that Hu is going to visit the United States in January 2011. Therefore, it is very normal and reasonable for Obama not to specifically visit China this time.

As a major and also the fastest-growing emerging country in the Asia-Pacific region, China naturally receives more attention from the United States. The United States' eagerness to reengage in Asia and cooperation with Asian countries in containing China has fully shown its concern over China’s impressive social and economic development as well as great progress in strengthening relations with surrounding countries in recent years.

In addition, there has been contact and containment in the U.S. policy on China over the years. Although the United States recently stepped up its layout around China, it has not yet separated from the overall framework of U.S. policy towards China. Clinton gave a temporary visit to Hainan during her trip in Asia to meet Dai Bingguo, a member of the State Council. Timothy Geithner also met Wang Qishan, vice-premier of China, at Qingdao Airport after the G20 meeting.

Both China and the United States are playing games in the Asian and Pacific regions. However, as Clinton said, both China and the United States should not play a "zero-sum game." She believes the two countries need to coordinate with each other on major international issues, and the Asia-Pacific countries will not wish to be forced to "choose a side" and even witness situations of regional unrest caused by the rivalry between China and the United States.

By Li Yan, a scholar from the Institute of American Studies under the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, translated by People's Daily Online

(Editor:张洪宇)

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