Twin Summits: Bali minus Barack Obama is just right for China as US tend to lose
By Rajesh Rajagopalan
Doubts about US willingness to play the great game in Asia have been around for at least a decade. With Barack Obama, these doubts have been growing. His decision to cancel his Asia tour because of the US government shutdown means that he will miss two crucial summits: the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit as well as the East Asia Summit. And it has let loose a storm of commentary about Washing-ton's loss and China's gain because Xi Jinping, China's new leader, has been talking partnership and winning friends even among traditional sceptics about China such as Indonesia.
The Apec summit is crucial because the US had been pushing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free trade area for the Pacific Rim. The TPP is the economic and trade component of Washington's "Asian pivot", the commercial fence that would have left China out while tying the rest of the region to the US market.
The US had been promoting the idea for several years and Obama was supposed to give the initiative a final push in order to complete it by the end of the year. With Obama absent and Xi on a charm offensive to push alternative commercial architecture for the region, the future of the TPP is less clear. Xi's outreach to Southeast Asian countries includes an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank that would provide Chinese funds for infrastructure. The ADB had earlier suggested that the region needs to invest about $8 trillion in infrastructure development in 2010-20 for continued growth, which means that the Chinese proposal is bound to be attractive.
More importantly, Xi has managed to dilute the concerns of some of the countries about China's aggressiveness. If he is successful, he could divide those with whom China has serious disputes, such as Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines, from the others. Beijing might enjoy some temporary sunshine, but the pragmatic leadership in China knows that they cannot afford to have the US ignore Asia just yet, let alone withdraw from it.
The need for US
China wants the US in the region because it provides the security that the smaller countries need. If the US did not provide that security cover, the local powers would have to do it themselves, raising defence budgets, forging local military alliances and generally making the region unstable and affecting the trade on which China still depends upon to grow. Therefore, despite Washington's attention deficit disorder when it comes to Asia, much of the fevered commentary about America's decline in the region and China's concurrent rise is misplaced.
The good news is that the key problem facing the US is not any lack of capacity but rather an administration that appears fundamentally unsure of the value of America's global role. Obama came into office believing his own liberal propaganda about how US misbehaviour was the source of Washington's global problems.
After fruitlessly trying for five years to make the rest of the world love the US, he complained about the unfairness of the world both wanting the US to stay involved while criticising its involvement. But great powers do not have the luxury of opting out of the great game. This is a simple truth that Washington needs to relearn.