The most reiterated soundbite that came out of this weekend’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Hawaii was President Barack Obama’s insistence that China behave like a “grown up.”
“Enough’s enough,” said the president. China should stop “gaming” the international system with its manipulative currency policy and sometimes arbitrary trade restrictions. “We’re going to continue to be firm that China operate by the same rules as everyone else,” he told reporters. “We don’t want them taking advantage of the United States.”
Obama’s Republican challengers for next year’s presidential election have mostly lambasted China as well for supposedly “stealing American jobs.” His rhetoric, unusually blunt, may have been intended for domestic consumption but China responded nevertheless by wondering aloud why it should abide by “rules” it had no part in writing.
China’s neighbors are likely to welcome Obama’s bold words because they fear Chinese hegemony in East Asia. Economically, countries ranging from traditional American allies like Japan and the Philippines to emerging markets as Indonesia and Vietnam are increasingly dependent on China but for security, they look to the United States for balance. President Obama reassured them last Saturday that, “The United States is a Pacific power and we are here to stay.”
His words echoed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s assertion last year that stability in Southeast Asia is of “national interest” to the United States, a claim that was also rebuked by Beijing which argued that “China is a big country and other countries are small countries and that is just a fact.”
Especially in the South China Sea region, Chinese border claims have antagonized its neighbors and the United States alike which both recognize the importance of safeguarding free shipping though this strategically positioned body of water.
American attempts at mediation have not significantly affected China’s posture. It is facing major demographic challenges as well as resource and water scarcities well into the twenty-first century, compelling it to ensure a favorable balance of power in its immediate neighborhood and a foothold in Africa and Central Asia where there are natural riches to be secured.
This could be a threat to the sovereignty and security of China’s neighbors if Beijing is unwilling to share the role of security provider in East Asia with the United States.
In order to deepen America’s engagement in the region, the Obama Administration wants to become part of the Trans Pacific Partnership which seeks to eliminate all tariffs on imports and exports among Pacific nations by the middle of this decade.
To get in, China would have to foster more competition between private companies and its state-owned monopolies, allow more foreign investment and improve protection of intellectual property rights. It has shown little progress on these fronts in recent years but if the rest of the region, including North and Latin American nations, were to become a free-trade zone, that may encourage the Chinese to open up their economy at a faster pace to realize that free trade, not protectionism, is