Towards the end of April, President Obama visited a number of countries in Asia and the Pacific, a trip obviously designed to reassure their leaderships that in the face of a China which is on the brink of becoming the largest economy in the world, that the United States still considers itself the major power in those areas.
The President visited Malaysia, once a British colony, but a country which, since it attained independence, has determinedly created a significant, predominantly capitalist economy, indicating over the last many years that there are no necessary impediments, deriving from colonialism, to sustained economic growth. Then he visited the small state of Brunei, and the Philippines, once virtually an American protectorate after the Second World War, and then a bulwark of American anti-Communist, and consequently anti-China policy as long as the Cold War lasted.
Obama also made obligatory stops in Japan and South Korea, the real bulwarks of the United States’ post-Second World War anti-China policy, having however become in geopolitical and ideological terms, somewhat less significant in US eyes after President Nixon’s and Henry Kissinger’s visit to, and subsequent full recognition of China, and that country’s visible determination to transform itself into an economy fully competitive with the giants of the post-Second World War capitalist world.
There have been two fundamental aspects of the President’s tour, originally postponed from a planned date of October 2013 because of the Congressional threat to, as it was put, shut down the government over the President’s’ budgetary proposals. First, in the wake of an increasing recognition of the rapid growth of China’s economy, in a period when the Japanese economy, traditionally recognized as the real Asian economic miracle, had gone into a period of stagnation, the US has been determined to assure Japan and the other states that it desires to build a network of relationships with them that would provide a basis for continued economic growth. Hence the President’s proposal for a Trans-Pacific Partnership among the US’s traditional allies.
Secondly, and in particularly in the wake of fears on the part of Japan and the Philippines, there has been an American desire to reassure these countries that the end of the Cold War and China’s entry into the world capitalist system, would not mean that the US would ignore the geopolitical aspects of relations in the Pacific and leave them, as it were, naked in the face of an increasingly strong China, not simply in economic, but in military and consequently global strategic terms.
So the President seems to have been determined to assure his allies that what is now referred to as the United States’ “pivot to Asia” is a policy indication of his country’s determination to ensure that allies of the US need not feel isolated in the face of China’s obvious determination to reassert itself, as initially indicated in its challenge to both Japan and the Philippines over maritime delimitation issues. And therefore, he has specifically assured the government of Japan that the islands involved in the current dispute are covered by defence arrangements with the United States, specifically the US-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security.
Nonetheless, the President will also have assured the leadership of Japan that the US recognizes a mutual interest of both his country and China in a degree of diplomatic cooperation in curtailing the unorthodox behaviour of North Korea, particularly in respect of its pretensions to attain nuclear power status. And in that respect, whatever the difficulties induced for United States allies by China’s boundaries aggressiveness, a continuing cooperation with China is necessary. And no doubt South Korea is fully cognizant of this.
From a United States perspective however, the President’s visit also recognizes that China’s entry into what is now truly a world capitalist system, suggests over the medium term a natural determination of that country to have a larger and larger say in the negotiation of the terms of international production and trade. And he further recognizes that in decision-making about international trade and production arrangements, the so-called emerging economies may be seeing China as something of an ally.
From that perspective, it is perhaps not accidental that China has not been drawn into Obama’s attempts to form a Trans Pacific Partnership, a design which, with the US at its centre also includes countries of Latin America as well as Canada and Australia. This, along with the Trans Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership now proposed by the EU and the US, is obviously one of the North Atlantic countries’ instruments, or weapons, to proceed to hasten trade liberalization among both industrialized and some emerging countries, in the face of the stalling of the WTO negotiations.
So Obama has clearly recognized the increasing interrelationships between the Western economic powers and the emerging states, and is acting to ensure American predominance in the face of a rising Chinese economy, attractive as a commodity purchaser and intervener in developing countries’ economic growth processes. And the US is seeking to tie up, or modernize relationships which it has had with various developing countries of some significance in global trade.
There is an effort here to ensure that the increasing preeminence of China in the international economy, including that of the emerging economies, is balanced by a modernization of post-Second World War North Atlantic trade agreements. And Obama seems to now recognize that there is a dynamism outside the North Atlantic that the US must come to terms with.
Whether a hostile Congress, influenced by the fact that this is the President’s last term in office, will allow him to proceed with dispatch, is an open question.