Trip should unite, not divide Asia

Updated: 2012-11-16 08:04

By Chen Weihua (China Daily)

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Trip should unite, not divide AsiaUS President Barack Obama begins a four-day, three-nation trip - Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia - on Saturday.

During his trip, Obama is expected to refrain from using the nasty campaign rhetoric attacking China that he and his Republican opponent Mitt Romney engaged in during their presidential election campaigns in the United States.

But he should also avoid using the trip as an opportunity to fan the flames of the territorial disputes that have flared up between China and some of its neighbors since the US decided to "return to Asia".

Yes, there have been frictions between China and some of its neighbors in their territorial disputes. But it is wrong to suggest that China wants conflicts or even wars with countries in the region. All countries know that a peaceful region will best serve their national interests.

The bigger picture is that East Asia has become the most dynamic region in the world today and trades more with China than with the US. China is now the largest trading partner with the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. China has been the major engine driving the region's export and economic boom.

Although Obama and other US officials have repeatedly said the United States does not seek to contain China, the US has used the territorial disputes between China and some of its neighbors - some of which are US allies - as the excuse to step up its military presence in the region.

The disputes may not be settled easily, but the US should not try to take advantage of them in pursuit of its own interests. It is only the US defense industry that benefits from any tensions in the region.

Statistics show that US arms exports hit a record high of $66.3 billion in 2011, triple the previous year. They accounted for 78 percent of the world's total. Much of the weapons were sold to Asia.

And while the US has been beefing up its military presence in the Asia-Pacific region and strengthening its alliances, it has also been promoting the Trans-Pacific Partnership as a core part of its pivot to Asia, in a bid to counter the growing economic interdependency in the region.

The TPP, which aims to include as many Asia-Pacific economies as possible, excluding China, is being sold in the US to a compliant media and unsuspecting public as evidence of the US' leadership on trade. But as Jagdish Bhagwati, an economist at Columbia University and the world's leading free trade advocate, has pointed out, the opposite is true.

Obama enjoyed high global popularity when he took office in 2008, but the Pew Center survey released in June shows that global approval of Obama's international policies had declined significantly since he first took office, while overall confidence in him and attitudes toward the US have slipped modestly as a consequence.

China has not taken advantage of the frictions between the US and other countries and regions in the world. The US should return the favor and not try to wield its influence to divide Asia. It should not force Asian nations to choose between China and the US.

Instead of playing a divisive game, which is common in US politics today, Obama should pursue win-win relations with China.

A lack of strategic trust has been the major obstacle to a strong China-US relationship. Obama's trip should help reduce the distrust, not increase it. That is true smart power.

The author, based in New York, is deputy editor of China Daily USA. E-mail:

(China Daily 11/16/2012 page9)