“As we end today’s wars, I’ve directed my national security team to make our presence and missions in the Asia-Pacific a top priority,” US President Obama told the Senate and House of Representatives in November. The administration’s “pivot” in policy, as it is being called, followed not only the gradual reduction of troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also a year of intensifying territorial tensions between China and other Asian nations, particularly the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia. China carried out a series of “assertive” moves in the region – including naval exercises in the oil-rich waters of the South China Sea and patrols of the Mekong River – which have put its Asian neighbors and the US on guard.
As a result, many Asian countries have welcomed the renewed US commitment to the region. Australia will allow the US to lodge 2,500 Marines on a new base in Darwin, on the country’s northern coast. Vietnam said in November that it would open its port facilities in the Cam Ranh Bay to “all countries.” The US Navy may station new coastal combat ships in Singapore and the Philippines. Japan and South Korea have also strengthened military relationships with the US in the last year. China has clearly been caught off-guard by some of these developments, especially Myanmar’s commitment to political reforms during a visit by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The US denies that these moves are part of a strategy to encircle or contain China. But it is clear that the US wants to ensure that it can protect the strategic and economic interests of itself and its allies in East Asia – the value of which are growing apace with the region’s GDP.
Former diplomat Kenneth Jarrett, chairman of Greater China at APCO Worldwide, termed the strategy one of “con-gagement.” “Certainly in the last few years the emphasis has been more on the engagement side,” he told a group of journalists in Shanghai in December. “At this point I think you can make the case that it is shifting a little bit more to the containment side – although I would use that word with some caution because it’s certainly not a containment policy like we had with the Soviet Union.”
Most recently, the shift has taken on an economic dimension in the form of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The TPP – a free trade agreement supported by a number of Pacific Rim countries including Australia, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam and the US – received a shot of adrenaline in November when Japan announced that it was considering joining the pact. Japan’s entry into the TPP would certainly benefit the US economy. Japan maintains high barriers to trade that restrict US imports of many goods, especially agricultural products.
Some have implied that the renewed emphasis on the TPP is a plot to shut China out of valuable trade. China remains years away from qualifying to join TPP, a “21st century trade agreement” that requires members to uphold, amongst other things, certain standards for protecting intellectual property and the environment.
Regardless of the intentions of the members of the TPP, America’s gain is not necessarily China’s loss. China has strong economic interests in the region, including its own free trade agreement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. With such a fragile global economy, ASEAN is likely to do its best to ensure that vigorous trade with China continues.
Tensions may be rising in the region. But if an outcome of this early 21st Century chess game is the creation of two vibrant free-trade zones that compete to lower tariffs and boost trade, so much the better for everyone. That would truly be a departure from Cold War-style containment.