Calming of disputes also benefits US

Updated: 2012-11-24 07:49

By Wang Hui (China Daily)

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US President Barack Obama's trip to Southeast Asia this week, the first foreign tour after his re-election, signals Washington's growing interest in the continent and its determination to deepen its strategic pivot to the region.

The four-day trip took him to Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia. In Phnom Penh he met with regional leaders at the Seventh East Asia Summit and also attended a separate summit meeting with leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Compared with the security issues that have dominated previous visits to the region by high-ranking US officials, cooperation in such fields as economic and trade has featured on Obama's agenda in Asia this time.

In Thailand, Obama must have been elated when Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra expressed her country's interest in joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership., which Washington perceives as a key step in its re-engagement with Asia. In Phnom Penh, Obama and ASEAN leaders vowed to deepen their trade and investment ties and decided to launch the US-ASEAN expanded economic engagement, or E3, initiative. The E3 is seen as an arrangement that could help promote broader trade agreements such as the TPP.

And, in an apparent move to draw their relationship closer, the US and ASEAN have decided to institutionalize their annual summit from now on. For 15 years, ASEAN has only held summits with China, Japan and the Republic of Korea on a regular basis to discuss trade.

All these overtures demonstrate Obama is adding an economic approach to the US' rebalancing policy in Asia. It also shows the US pins high hopes on its growing economic ties with the region to bolster its own ailing economy.

While Western countries are mired in financial crises and economic recession, Asia has thrived to be the most dynamic economic region in the world. It accounts for about one-third of global economic output, and its contribution to global growth exceeds 30 percent. So it is a natural choice for the US to include an economic approach in its re-engagement with the region.

But in order to benefit from the dividends of stronger US-ASEAN trade ties, it is essential that the Asia-Pacific region should steer clear of conflict and confrontation and embark on a new road of mutual respect and win-win cooperation. This would cater to the interests of all countries that claim to have a vital stake in the region, and help create conditions for keeping the maritime disputes at bay, rather than inflaming them.

It seems Washington is gradually coming to realize this.

At the recently concluded EAS, which was attended by leaders from the 10 ASEAN member states and its eight dialogue partners including the United States and China, although Obama made clear the US will not change its stance over the South China Sea, his remarks show the US wants a reduction of tensions over the maritime disputes.

The maritime disputes involving China and a few members of ASEAN have increased tensions in the region recently. The Philippines and Vietnam covet waters that have been China's maritime territory since ancient times. The US' overt and covert support for these countries has emboldened them to create waves over the issue.

That Obama did not seek to stir up the South China Sea disputes at this year's EAS, which is what US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has done when attending previous EAS meetings, sends the message that the US does not want to be dragged into a head-on confrontation with China over the disputes. If the US can keep sending messages like this, it could help keep the Philippines' ambitions and provocations in check

For the maritime dispute involving China and Japan in the East China Sea, Obama told Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda on the margins of the EAS that the US will not take sides in the dispute. It seems certain that Washington is unwilling to see the feud keep deepening between its most important ally in Asia and its pivotal trading partner.

There has been speculation that the US wants a certain degree of friction in the maritime disputes in the region to contain China's rise. But if this is the case, it is tantamount to playing with fire as the disputes could easily escalate out of control and eventually affect the US' own pursuit of economic benefits in the region.

The author is a senior writer with China Daily. E-mail: wanghui@

(China Daily 11/24/2012 page5)