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[East Asia Forum] Obama and Asia

November 12th, 2012

Author: Peter Drysdale, Editor, East Asia Forum

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An Obama second term has been welcomed throughout Asia, including in China, although the hard-heads judged that Romney would have provided a steady hand despite his early rhetoric about getting tough on China.

The initial reaction of Asia’s stock markets provided another indication of the favourable reaction to President Obama’s re-election.

Obama had signalled clearly that America would remain engaged in Asia. His administration’s ‘pivot toward Asia’ provided reassurance against a potentially assertive China on the rise. Yet, there are also misgivings across the region about how exactly the United States intends to manage the crucial China relationship and anxieties about whether China and the United States might drift or be led into unwanted conflict, threatening regional prosperity centred on the growing strength of the Chinese economy.

In Tokyo, Seoul, Singapore, Jakarta or Canberra, as Hugh White has argued, no US ally or partner wants the United States to back away in the face of growing Chinese pressure, but at the same time no one wants the US to support its allies or partners in ways that force them to somehow ‘choose’ between Washington and Beijing.

Active US engagement in Asia is the best way to avoid living solely under China’s shadow. So America’s strategic role in Asia is welcomed. Everyone fears the consequences of a US–China strategic rivalry. They value their economic and political relationships with both the United States and China. And they know that a US–China war would be a disaster for the region. So everyone wants the US to stay engaged, but in a way that avoids escalating US–China rivalry. And in the end that means they want the US to stay engaged in a way that China is willing to accept — if China is willing to accept something short of US hegemony. But the central US aim in Asia, White has argued, is to preserve its primacy, and as China grows in economic and political power it is not likely that China will acquiesce to a US role defined that way. China might well, though, accept the US as a balancing power. So while everyone in Asia wants the US to stay, they really want it to stay as a balancing power, not as a primary power.

Is it in America’s psychology to feel comfortable in that role? If not, there will be a growing potential psychological gap between America and its friends and allies in Asia — allies and friends who want America to stay, but not to stay the way Americans might think they want to stay.

Others view the US–China relationship through a very different lens. For over 30 years, they’d argue, America has sought to accommodate China within the global rules-based system, ever since Deng opened the country and committed to reform. This has been the premise of US policy toward China. There may be risks. China has become big and economically powerful before it has effected fundamental political reform. But its trajectory is on course, and is one to which both America and China are both still committed and there is no evidence that US policies are hell-bent on pursuit of American primacy. The nature of their bilateral engagement; their cooperation within global and other forums describes a relationship between competitor peers not potential military protagonists.

In this week’s lead essay, Amitav Acharya, at American University, offers a view that is somewhere in between. The second Obama administration, he says, faces three main challenges: making the ‘pivot to Asia’ a militarily credible contribution to balancing China’s rising regional power in the face of binding economic constraints; defining a really constructive bilateral relationship with China; and building multilateral engagement with Asia effectively, by delivering concrete outcomes from regional economic and security cooperation. The emerging powers of Asia must also bear responsibility for maintaining order, Acharya argues, ‘if the one that America built collapses’. But Asia is still in the middle of a power drift, unable yet to offer much in the way of regional or global leadership. The challenge for the second Obama administration will thus be to encourage a shared role for and with Asia in regional cooperation and global governance.

The second Obama administration takes power as the region grapples with how to think about these fundamental challenges in the relationship between America and China. Yet, if one drills down into thinking within the professional elites on the western side of the Pacific, this circumstance is seen to be at the heart of the more or less unconditional welcome across the region of Obama’s victory. Rightly or wrongly, under the surface, America’s friends and allies in the region were anxious about a Romney victory, because they were less sure that a Romney administration would have been comfortable in ‘allowing’ the continuing emergence of China as a peer competitor. Whatever missteps Obama may have made in his first term (in the execution of the pivot to Asia, for example) his administration is seen as a pair of safe hands in working to accommodate China’s participation in the system. And, on that account, a second Obama term makes everyone feel a little more secure. The announcement of the President’s early visit to Myanmar is additional and welcome confirmation of the new administration’s hands-on approach to Asian affairs.

Peter Drysdale is Editor of the East Asia Forum.

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