A Comeback in the Pacific


HONG KONG — It makes few headlines and wins no votes but the Obama administration is tallying up significant gains in its relationships in East Asia.

Long diverted by imbroglios in Iraq and Afghanistan, the summit meeting on Friday in New York between President Obama and leaders of the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) reflects a reawakening of U.S. interest in the southern neighbors of a rising China.

Asean itself may be little more than a talk-shop on to which trade and cultural agreements have been bolted. But Washington now recognizes that engaging it as a group enables the United States to compete at least in part with a China, which has a trade agreement with Asean.

It also serves as a reminder to China, as well as to the Asean countries themselves, that most member states have military cooperation deals with the United States that provide immensely valuable logistical support for U.S. forces in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell have been regular visitors to the region. Indeed, Mrs. Clinton acted as a catalyst at the July meeting of Asean foreign ministers in Hanoi, helping Vietnam get the issue of South China Sea disputes back on to the international agenda — to the great discomfort of China.

The Obama administration’s attempt to engage with the oppressive regime in Myanmar is also viewed positively by other Asean members, and India. Although the United States has called the approaching elections unfair and undemocratic, Washington acknowledges both the ineffectiveness of sanctions and the possibility of positive change in Myanmar. In turn that could lead to Myanmar reducing its reliance on China, currently its closest ally.

The new U.S. focus on Southeast Asia is also part of the broader strategy to shore up relations in East Asia.

China sees this as an unwarranted outside interference in regional affairs and an attempt at containment. However, a more common view in the region is that expressed by Australia’s foreign minister, Kevin Rudd, at a recent press conference in Washington, that the “stability of East Asia and the Pacific remains anchored in the strategic presence of the United States.”

Such sentiments are likely to surface at the East Asian summit meeting, to be held in late October in Hanoi, which groups 16 Asia-Pacific countries and includes the United States and Russia as observers. With Mrs. Clinton and the major U.S. regional allies of Japan, South Korea and Australia in attendance, plus an India that is also smarting from China’s border claims, the summit could prove a little uncomfortable for China.

American concerns that Japan was loosening ties with the U.S. following the ouster of the Liberal Democratic Party last year have proved unwarranted. A firm stance by the United States over its Okinawa bases coincided with rising worries in Japan about China’s naval ambitions, further underlined this week by a fierce diplomatic spat over several uninhabited islands controlled by Japan but claimed by China.

Japan has been shifting its defense focus to its southern waters and the international waterway between Okinawa and the southernmost Japanese islands that provides China’s navy with an outlet to the Pacific. South Korean sentiment, too, has been edging back closer to the United States following the sinking of one of its ships and strong Chinese opposition to Korea-U.S. naval exercises.

None of this adds up to an alliance against China. Few nations, even Vietnam and Japan, want to antagonize a rising power and major market. But they are pushing back against China’s assertiveness. Thus, the revival of U.S. strategic interest in East Asia is being driven by the Asians themselves as well as by the Obama administration.

For the longer term, the United States and its allies will be wondering whether it can afford the cost of its still overwhelming naval and air presence in the region. If cutbacks in U.S. military capability are needed, where will priorities lie?

This century is supposed to be the Pacific century. So far the United States has focused its military might on the Middle East but the approaching summit meetings with Asia’s powers will show that Washington is reawakening to this region’s importance.