Page 1 of 2 America: The new sick man of Asia?
By Peter Lee
The tag line for United States President Barack Obama's appearance at the
Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Honolulu was "The United
States is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay".
The question is, is the United States a leader bringing economic and security
solutions to the Pacific, or is it the new "Sick Man of Asia", infecting the
region with its imperial malaise.
Obama was in full scold mode at the meeting, telling the Chinese their economy
was "grown up" and it was time for Beijing to "stop gaming the system".
Chinese President Hu Jintao, smarting under the lash of American condescension,
was perhaps muttering to himself that the main
problem is that United States economy can't "grow up" anymore, and needs
China's help - but can't bring itself to ask for it.
The APEC summit also saw a boost to Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), conceived
as a North American Free Trade Area (NAFTA) for Asians clustered around the
United States (and an alternative to China's "divide and conquer" strategy of
bilateral negotiation of free-trade pacts), as Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihiko
Noda announced his country would participate in negotiations.
China was not included, since the club is only for "rule-playing nations".
The Associated Press reported that Mike Froman - the Obama administration's
deputy assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser for
international economic affairs - played the role of sneering courtier:
told reporters that China had not expressed interest in joining and said the
trade group "is not something that one gets invited to. It's something that one
aspires to". 
Froman is a friend of the president's from
their days editing the Harvard Law Review, an enthusiastic contribution
bundler, a protege of Richard Rubin and, previous to his White House stint, a
managing director at Citigroup.
So, again one can image the Chinese rolling their eyes at the spectacle of an
ex-employee of Citibank - which played "by the rules" of venal mismanagement
and financial recklessness that brought the world economy to the brink of
collapse and whose "aspirations" (aka insolvency) were subsequently rewarded by
admission to TARP, the government's bailout fund - playing doorman to exclude
China (whose domestic stimulus program is credited with a major role in
cleaning up Wall Street's mess and keeping the world from sliding into
recession) from America's super special trade club.
This was all well and good for the Western foreign policy commentariat, which
generally rewards American China-bashing with uncritical praise, cites the grim
US political and economic climate to excuse any rhetorical excesses the
president commits, and condemns Beijing for its paranoid carping about
However, it looks like Obama may have gone a little too far during a subsequent
stop in Australia.
There he laid a wreath at a memorial in Darwin to US victims of the Japanese
attack of 1942, and announced the two countries had agreed on a program to
rotate 2500 US Marines Corps through Australian military bases in the Northern
Territory, thereby establishing a permanent US military presence.
Nothing says "containment" like invoking the historical crimes of the Yellow
Peril and plunking down 2,500 marines at the part of Australia closest to
These looked a little over-the-top even to some Western commentators.
Even Jackie Calmes of the New York Times - a reliably hospitable venue for the
Obama administration - hinted that the Chinese had a point:
the week's developments could suggest an economic and a military encirclement.
Top leaders did not immediately comment on Mr. Obama's speech, but Mr. Liu, the
Foreign Ministry spokesman, emphasized that it was the United States, not
China, seeking to use military power to influence events in Asia.
Analysts say that Chinese leaders have been caught off guard by what they view
as an American campaign to stir up discontent in the region. China may have
miscalculated in recent years by restating longstanding territorial claims that
would give it broad sway over development rights in the South China Sea, they
say. But they argue that Beijing has not sought to project military power far
beyond its shores, and has repeatedly proposed to resolve territorial disputes
through negotiations. 
A commentary on Xinhua offered a
Asia Pacific Region Needs a Partner, Not a Leader
It's hard to envision what kind of "leadership" the United States aspires to
have in the region. What the region really needs -- right now -- is a strong
and reliable partner that can help the region stave off the current financial
crisis and seek balanced and sustained growth. 
of the commentary is that US "leadership" in the Pacific is today's codeword
for "containment" and that the US and the world would be better off if the
United States prioritized global economic issues in partnership with China
instead of trying to cobble together an expensive and economically
counter-productive anti-China bloc.
It's quite likely that, deep in his heart of heart, Obama agrees. The game in
the Pacific is not regional security.
If the United States was really concerned about a panda-on-koala bear beat down
on Australia's north shore, it wouldn't be putting a few marines in Darwin; it
would be inching up closer to red line on Tibetan and Taiwanese independence to
foment a political and security crisis inside China that would distract Beijing
from overseas adventurism, even if it risked sending the world economy into a
The Obama administration has assiduously avoided genuine provocations on these
two "core interests" of China.
The real game is economic
The United States has been sending continual, high-level signals to Beijing
that America views Asia as a vital interest because it wants a share of the
region's economic growth.
As US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it in her essay on America's
Harnessing Asia's growth and dynamism is central to
American economic and strategic interests ... broader commitment to elevate
economic statecraft as a pillar of American foreign policy. Increasingly,
economic progress depends on strong diplomatic ties, and diplomatic progress
depends on strong economic ties. And naturally, a focus on promoting American
prosperity means a greater focus on trade and economic openness in the
The embarrassing conundrum appears to be that
the United States is indeed anxious for a partnership with China, but feels the
only way to obtain it is to extort it - by establishing a web of economic and
security alliances that will exclude China until it delivers the revalued
currency and more open markets that the United States considers key to its own
The Obama administration's disappointment with China as a negotiating partner
dates back to the intense rancor surrounding the collapse of the Copenhagen
Unsurprisingly, the Obama team feels that China plays the game zero-sum in
pursuit of its national interest, and won't make meaningful and useful
concessions unless it gets its arm twisted.
Therefore, Clinton and her team go out to generate a regional security crisis
out of the decades-old territorial disputes in the South China Sea; wean
Myanmar and North Korea away from China; embolden Vietnam with visions of
alliance with the US and India; and encourage overt hawkishness in regional
allies like Japan, South Korea, and Australia.
The US message is that the pressure stays on until China "plays by the rules".
The Asian countries go along, one can speculate, since they are assured that
there is a well-thought out economic endgame behind the military posturing.
There's one problem.
America's standing as the world's policeman is unquestioned; but its
qualifications as leader of the world's free-market economies look more and
The days when America exercised genuine world economic leadership by serving as
the world's demand engine and steward of the world's reserve currency appear to
be fading into memory.
The true significance of the APEC meeting in Honolulu was not America's "return
It was the United States' descent into the class of "just another exporter" in
the zero-sum world of trade competition.
We want to be the lean-and-mean exporter, not the fat-and-happy importer.
Now we expect China to shoulder the responsibility of sustaining world demand.
And we expect to compete with our allies to meet that demand.