As Barack Obama's Asia 'pivot' falters, China steps into the gap

Kuala Lumpur, PTI | Updated : 06 October 2013, 11:22 AM

When then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared two years ago "We are back to stay" as a power in Asia, the most dramatic symbol of the policy shift was the planned deployment of 2,500 U.S. Marines in northern Australia, primed to respond to any regional conflict.

At this point in time, however, there is not a single U.S. Marine in the tropical northern city of Darwin, according to the Australian defence ministry. Two hundred Marines just finished their six-month tour and will not be replaced until next year, when 1,150 Marines are due to arrive.

The original goal of stationing 2,500 Marines there by 2017 remains in place, but the lack of a U.S. presence there two years after the policy was announced underlines questions about Washington's commitment to the strategic "pivot" to Asia.

President Barack Obama's cancellation of a trip this week to four Asian nations and two regional summits due to the U.S. government shutdown has raised further doubts over a policy aimed at re-invigorating U.S. military and economic influence in the fast-growing region, while balancing a rising China.

While U.S. and Asian diplomats downplayed the impact of Obama's no-show, the image of a dysfunctional, distracted Washington adds to perceptions that China has in some ways outflanked the U.S. pivot.

"It's symptomatic of the concern in Asia over the sustainability of the American commitment," said Carl Baker, director of the Pacific Forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Hawaii.

As embarrassed U.S. officials announced the cancellations last week, Chinese President Xi Jinping was in Indonesia announcing a raft of deals worth about $30 billion and then in Malaysia to announce a "comprehensive strategic partnership", including an upgrade in military ties.

He was en route to this week's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Bali and the East Asia Summit in Brunei, where Obama will no longer be able to press his signature trade pact or use personal diplomacy to support allies concerned at China's assertive maritime expansion.

Since 2011, China has consolidated its position as the largest trade partner with most Asian countries and its direct investments in the region are surging, albeit from a much lower base than Europe, Japan and the United States. Smaller countries such as Laos and Cambodia have been drawn so strongly into China's economic orbit that they have been called "client states" of Beijing, supporting its stance in regional disputes.

Leveraging its commercial ties, China is also expanding its diplomatic, political and military influence more broadly in the region, though its efforts are handicapped by lingering maritime tensions with Japan, the Philippines and several other nations.

"For countries not closely allied with the U.S., Obama's no-show will reinforce their policy of bandwagoning with China," wrote Carl Thayer, emeritus professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra.

First Published: Sunday, October 06, 2013 10:56 AM
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