Feature

How they see us: A trade pact that excludes China

President Obama's attendance at both the ASEAN and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summits is part of a geopolitical strategy to play a larger role in Asia and the Pacific.

Here come the Americans, said Ran Wei in the Xinhua News Agency. The Obama administration “has unveiled its back-to-Asia strategy,” an attempt to compete with China for economic dominance in Asia. As part of his efforts to kick-start Asian affairs, President Obama this week becomes the first U.S. president to attend the ASEAN summit. And last week, at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Hawaii, he pushed for a new free-trade deal called the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The pact, which Obama said could be in place within a year, would lift tariffs and increase economic cooperation among the U.S. and eight Pacific nations: Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam. Japan is considering joining as well. Notice which nation is missing? The largest economic power in the region and the world, China.

This is not going down very well in Beijing, said Cary Huang in the Hong Kong South China Morning Post. Just after the summit, Obama used some of his toughest language yet to urge China to accept the responsibilities of a “grown-up” economy and stop “gaming the system.” And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lit into China for alleged human-rights abuses, saying that only nations that met high labor standards would be allowed to join the free-trade pact. When Chinese officials said they might consider joining if invited, U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Mike Froman pompously responded that the initiative “is not something that one gets invited to. It’s something that one aspires to.” All this has “raised Chinese suspicion over what geopolitical objectives the U.S. has in mind.”

Snubbing China so publicly is hardly conducive to “strengthening mutual trust,” said the Beijing Global Times. In creating a large trade group for which it writes the rules, the U.S. is obviously bent on “doubling its exports and dominating Asia.” But if it thinks it can isolate China by excluding us from its little group, it is mistaken. After all, we have plenty of outlets for cooperation with our neighbors, and a very long history of trade with them. So far be it from us to oppose a pact that is doomed to irrelevance anyway. “China should feel comfortable with the fact that any Asian cooperation with the absence of Beijing will not have much heft.”

That’s probably true, said Daniel Flitton in the Melbourne Age. Ever since he took office, Obama has tried to present himself as the “first Pacific president,” citing his Hawaiian birth and time in Indonesia as indications that he is more Pacific- than Atlantic-oriented. And Hillary Clinton has said the next century for America will be its “Pacific century.” But Obama’s entire first term has been focused on issues in the Middle East, Afghanistan, and to some extent Europe. “There is no doubting the pendulum of world power has swung to Asia, but not America’s attention.” Other than complaining about China’s currency valuation, Obama has had little to say about this region. No free-trade pact can cement American influence as long as American power is concentrated elsewhere. “This could in fact become the ‘China century,’ with the old order on the wane.”

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