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    Southeast Asia
     Nov 10, 2010


Obama's trip, China's role, Asia's summits
By Donald K Emmerson

The point of United States President Barack Obama's Asian itinerary is not to shun Beijing. On the contrary, he will have chances to interact with Chinese leaders at international conferences in South Korea and Japan. But China's role in regional and world affairs is a major subtext of his journey. Unlike China, all of the countries on Obama's tour are democracies, and they all have issues with Beijing.

Two big questions loom over the nine-day jaunt now underway to India, Indonesia, South Korea and Japan: as a player in foreign affairs, will China become a responsible stakeholder, an irresponsible stick-wielder, or something in between? And what can China's neighbors do, with or without US help, to shift the

 

answer toward the cooperative end of the spectrum?

Imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo will be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize at a ceremony on December 10, 2010 in Oslo. Chinese authorities could have criticized the affair and then ignored it. Instead, they chose, in effect, to publicize the event, making it that much harder to ignore, by pressuring European governments to ignore it, that is, not to attend and not to congratulate the recipient. Early in November, Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai went so far as to describe the Norwegian award as a premeditated move in a US-instigated campaign by Western governments and companies "to undermine China". Any country that approved the award, he warned, would suffer unspecified "consequences".

A month earlier, the lead Chinese negotiator at a climate-change conference in Tianjin replied to American criticism of China's position on global warming by calling the US "a pig preening before a mirror". Still earlier in the year, the panda bared its teeth at territorial rivals in the East and South China Seas, including blocking or allowing the blocking of rare-earth exports to Japan.

Soft power this is not. But hardball diplomacy is no reason to anticipate an all-out rift. And even if containment were Obama's goal - it is not - his four Asian hosts are more than mere stays in a corset to be tightened around the panda's underbelly. The Cold War is still over.

All of the countries on Obama's tour belong to the East Asia Summit. So does China. Next year the US will join as well. So will Russia. Conceivably the summit could evolve into a venue, perhaps even a framework, for crafting a set of mutually beneficial adaptations between China, the rest of Asia, and the United States.

Skeptics doubt this. They worry that the sheer diversity of the 2011 summit's 18 members, far from promoting comity across the Asia-Pacific region, will prove too diverse to be decisive, leaving relations to drift with the tide of events. Such an outcome could suit those in Beijing who were not eager for Washington to join the East Asia Summit in the first place. They would rather project Chinese influence within the ASEAN Plus Three framework to which the US does not and cannot belong.

Whatever the summit's fate, it will be affected by what Obama's four hosts decide to do and not to do. China may not be explicitly on the agenda for discussion at each stop on his route, but it is bound to figure in the conversations that he and his retinue will have.

The overnight stop in Jakarta is a case in point. Indonesia has just assumed the 2010-11 chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). ASEAN launched the East Asia Summit in 2005 and continues to shape it. Indonesia will host the 2011 East Asia Summit and Obama plans to attend. In the light of this enlargement of Jakarta's regional role, Washington wants to know Indonesia's thinking on how to involve China constructively in regional affairs.

Overlapping multilaterals
The whither-China question will also arise at the two multilaterals Obama will attend: the Group of 20 (G-20) summit in Seoul and the gathering of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders in Yokohama. The overlapping memberships of the G-20, APEC, and the East Asia Summit (EAS) will turn these gatherings in 2010-11 into a traveling seminar on Asian and global policy and a running test of the efficacy of roundtable diplomacy.

All of the heads of G-20 governments are expected to reconvene for the EAS in Indonesia in 2011. All of the EAS leaders are slated to attend the 2011 APEC forum in the US. Other multilateral venues in 2010-11 will bring lower-ranking Chinese, Asian, and American officials together to discuss regional and global political economy and security.

Will these occasions deliver agreements of sufficient substance to suggest that mutually beneficial accommodations with China are possible - toward rebalancing the global economy, assuring regional security, reducing tensions over territorial claims, and slowing environmental degradation, among other desirables? Will these efforts to deal jointly with problems elicit a degree of Chinese cooperation sufficient to warrant the conclusion that China is amenable to multilateral commitments for the larger common good? Or will China's insistence on bilateral diplomacy and its aversion to multilateral negotiations to resolve maritime disputes extend to other issues as well?

It will be ironic if a bilateralist hub-and-spokes approach traditionally associated with Washington should gain favor in Beijing precisely at a time when the Obama administration is reaching out to multilateral forums such as ASEAN and the EAS. It will also be tempting to suggest that bilateralism, not to mention unilateralism, is the natural preference of a dominant power, and that as China gains more influence it is naturally becoming less interested in multilateral engagement. Some may even explain Washington's new appetite for multilateralism as an accommodation to diminished American power - collegiality as a virtue of necessity.

The trouble with such accounts is twofold. First, they ignore the choice and use of multilateral formats as sites for the projection of superior power. The collaborative creation of the United Nations (UN), North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and what is now the World Bank Group, after all, reflected not the decline but the dominance of the US after World War II.

Second, the notion that multilateralism is the province of weak or declining powers - a function of the global pecking order - ignores conditions inside a country that may be conducive to a particular outlook on the outside world, from go-it-alone nationalism to cooperative engagement with others. An explanation for the recent muscularity of Chinese foreign policy may, for example, implicate hardliners in the military versus soft-liners among civilian specialists on foreign affairs, or the conservative rhetoric of President Hu Jintao versus reformist comments made by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, or the intentional stimulation of anti-foreign patriotism to distract domestic attention from grievances and protests at the local level.

Could such within-country logic apply as well to the American side of Beijing-Washington relations? If Mao Zedong was right that a revolution is not a dinner party, will anti-China confrontation be a Tea Party?

The US's China policy per se was not a hot-button issue during the campaign that culminated in Republican control of the House of Representatives. As a group, for now, Republicans in Congress do not appear strikingly more (or less) hawkish on Asia-Pacific security than their Democratic colleagues. Other things being equal, US presidents are freer to make foreign than domestic policy decisions. The power to ratify treaties belongs to the Senate, where the Democrats retain a majority, albeit a reduced one.

One can nevertheless imagine a situation in which the Obama administration's multilateralist gamble in Asia falls prey to some combination of factors including Chinese "frown" diplomacy, Asian reluctance to stand up to Beijing, and Republican aversion to the compromises that successful roundtable diplomacy requires. Nor is time on Obama's side. If his foreign travel schedule in months to come does not yield results that can be convincingly portrayed to Americans as benefiting them, Republicans will declare the multilateralist experiment a failed product of naivete. And if Chinese invective against the US continues, panda-hunting will become an even more popular sport on the US electoral campaign trail in 2012.

Two caveats are in order: First, Obama and his team will not easily allow their Asia policy to become hostage to the ability of roundtables to deliver results. That is why two of his four destinations - India and Indonesia - are patently bilateral in nature. Second, in the competition for domestic approval, the productivity of multilateralism is a trivial abstraction compared with the recovery of the American economy. Obama knows this, which is why, in Mumbai, the traveling White House released a list of signed or prospective bilateral US-Indian agreements worth some US$10 billion in "support" of 53,670 new American jobs.

It's the economy, stupid
The most important test of roundtable diplomacy on Obama's Asian journey will occur at the G-20 summit in Seoul on November 11-12. Will the meeting implement the G-20 leaders' pledge at their September 2009 session in Pittsburgh "to adopt the policies needed to lay the foundation for strong, sustained and balanced growth in the 21st century"?

Recent events have lowered expectations. Agreement to support "strong, sustained and balanced" economic growth has become a mantra. But its repeated invocation has not overcome the apparent tension between its component goals. On their priority lists, export-dependent and poverty-conscious developing economies rank strength first. They are loath to see their growth slowed in the name of sustainability and balance. Nor do the most one-sidedly successful exporters in the industrial world wish to be penalized for their manufacturing prowess.

The US, in contrast, is burdened with a grossly import-reliant and arguably unsustainable imbalance of trade. Worried about unemployment and deflation at home, Washington wants the export-focused economies to stimulate their own domestic demand, including demand for American goods and services that could help create American jobs.

Understandably in this context, US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner appealed to sustainability and to balance when he urged the G-20 members to agree in Seoul to keep their current account surpluses and deficits within a band from +4% to -4%, respectively, of gross domestic product (GDP). But China and Germany, among other exporting economies, quickly shot that idea down, and it will not be adopted in Seoul. Instead, the summit will likely restate the commitment, already reaffirmed by the G-20 finance ministers, to maintain current account imbalances at sustainable levels as a means of growth - or words to that effect.

Such phrasing will leave the three-term mantra intact but vague. That may not be a bad thing. At least the G-20 leaders will have distinguished between what is possible and what is premature. Geithner's idea may resurface in future in less intrusive and more realistic guise as "indicative guidelines", possibly linked to an "early warning" system to help member economies stay voluntarily within them.

Win-win solutions are hard to find in zero-sum conditions. The good news is that the world economy has recovered from the downturn that followed the American Financial Crisis of 2008. As of October 2010, the Economist Intelligence Unit expected the real rate of growth in global GDP at purchasing-power-parity (PPP) exchange rates to jump from -0.7 % in 2009 to +4.4 % in 2010, and the rate of growth in world trade to leap from -11.1 % in 2009 to +11.5 % this year. These figures may be disincentives to global reform; why fix a problem that no longer exists? But they should facilitate cooperation; a larger pie is easier to share.

Closing thoughts 
A trip is not a policy. Obama's trip has purposes and aspects that are not treated here. But its success will be judged in no small part on two grounds: Did it further the American and Asian interest in helping China play a constructive future role in world affairs? And did it validate the Obama administration's decision to work with Asians, including China, in multilateral settings?

These questions are linked. An internationally benign China can raise the effectiveness of multilateral arrangements for the peace and prosperity of Asia, the Pacific, and the world. The effectiveness of such arrangements and their utility to China, the US, and other countries can, in turn, help convince Beijing of the value of cooperation over dictation.

But what is a "constructive" role? What does it mean to be internationally “benign”? Who gets to define these terms? The US? China? The G-20? Everyone?

In 2005, then-deputy secretary of state Robert Zoellick famously urged Beijing to become a "responsible" stakeholder in the international system. But the phrase conveniently skipped the rights of a stakeholder, including whether those rights should be enlarged in keeping with the size of its responsibility, and whether they include the right to change the international system by making it less reliant on American policy and less responsive to American preference.

As for American responsibility, the Seoul summit will take place in the wake of criticism from several countries, including China, that the US Federal Reserve has acted irresponsibly in deciding to purchase some $600 billion worth of US government bonds. The Fed's purpose was domestic: to lower yields in hopes of encouraging US growth and employment.

Some of the other G-20 governments worry, however, that this unilateral American action could collaterally damage their own economies - overheating them and spurring competitive devaluations. Conversely, if the Fed's move helps to revive the US economy, the rest of the world should benefit, and what now seems a risky step may be vindicated. The (ir)responsibility of some actions can only be determined in retrospect.

As the Fed showed, national sovereignty and the unilateralist prerogative are alive and well and living in the 21st century. But if China has to adapt to the changing world, so must America. Successful adaptation presupposes, alongside realistic knowledge of the world, realistic knowledge of oneself. If the US were as powerful now as some in the Tea Party might like to believe, would Geithner have had to withdraw his +4% to -4 % band from consideration by the G-20 in Seoul?

Recently an Australian analyst, Hugh White, expressed concern that the US may not be willing to share power with China. Depending on events, that may be an appropriate future concern. Obama's administration and his present trip, however, point toward a different conclusion: that far from piggishly preening itself in a mirror, the US is willing to sit down with China and others around a table and jointly seek solutions. The durability of that willingness will depend, however, on the efficacy of these settings.
Relative to its historic peaks, US power has declined. Relative to what it might someday become, Chinese power falls short. In such mutable conditions, Asian hosts and multilateral arrangements deserve American attention. In this supposedly "Asian" century, the wishes and actions of the leaders that Obama will meet on his trip could more than marginally influence just how Chinese, or how American, the terms of the two countries' mutual adaptation will be.

Donald K Emmerson heads the Southeast Asia Forum at Stanford University. His latest book is an edited volume, Hard Choices: Security, Democracy, and Regionalism in Southeast Asia (2008). His website is http://seaf.stanford.edu/people/donaldkemmerson/.

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