[Viewpoint] Asia’s month of milestones

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[Viewpoint] Asia’s month of milestones

For grand strategy buffs, this has been quite a month, with several events looking like the kind of turning points that will consume future historians. Capturing the most media attention has been Europe’s eroding credibility, with its paralyzed institutional response to the ongoing financial crisis making ever more fanciful the notion of a “G-3” world, in which the European Union could compete as a political and economic equal with the United States and China.

But the most interesting new chapters in the story - in economic, political and security terms - have been written in Asia and the Pacific. With the subtext in most cases being recurring nervousness about China’s rise, recent weeks have witnessed some very significant institutional and policy changes, as well as fundamental strategic repositioning, by the region’s major players.

First, at mid-November’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, hosted by U.S. President Barack Obama in Hawaii, Japan announced its intention to join the United States and eight other countries, including Australia, Chile and Singapore, in negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The TPP would create a free trade area 40 percent larger than the European Union - and much bigger still if it ultimately embraces all APEC members, further consolidating Asia’s global economic primacy.

Second, the leaders of every major country in the region - including for the first time the United States and Russia - met later in November at the East Asia Summit, hosted by Indonesia in Bali, to discuss security and economic issues.

This reportedly resulted in some lively exchanges on the issue of Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea. With India also a key member, this newly consolidated grouping is set to become by far the most effective of the alphabet soup of Asia’s regional and sub-regional organizations.

Third, in the run-up to the East Asia Summit, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced that she would move to relax her country’s long-standing prohibition on uranium sales to India while it remained outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Given international acceptance of the 2010 U.S.-India bilateral nuclear deal, Australia simply had no remaining policy leverage.

Whatever the reasons behind it, the policy change will remove a major irritant from bilateral relations and facilitate much closer political and strategic cooperation in the Indian Ocean. That is a point that will not be lost on China’s rulers.

Fourth, and most significant, was Obama’s speech in Canberra, the Australian capital, en route to the East Asia Summit. More wide-ranging and substantial than the usual bilateral bromides, Obama announced his “deliberate and strategic decision” to have the United States play a “larger and longer-term role” in shaping the Asia-Pacific region as it draws down its forces in Afghanistan and the Middle East. He called U.S. presence and missions in the Asia-Pacific region a “top priority,” to be insulated from any defense spending cuts.

Adding substance - and striking symbolism - to the rhetoric, Obama and Gillard announced the creation of a training base in northern Australia for 2,500 U.S. marines, a significant new capability within easy reach of both Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. Obama’s Canberra speech was careful to emphasize that the United States wants a cooperative, communicative relationship with China. But he was equally clear in stating that the U.S. would “preserve our unique ability to project power,” and issued some sharp messages to China about upholding international norms and respecting human rights.

It is important that Australia and others in the region do push back against the kind of hard Chinese nationalist sentiment that has rightly jangled nerves in the South China Sea and, in their defense policy and alliance relationships, hedge against worst-case scenarios, however unlikely they may appear now.

It is equally important, however, not to overdo the confrontation. Moreover, while maintaining absolute solidarity on existential issues, America’s Asian allies need to demonstrate that they have minds and interests of their own on international policy making - not least to ensure that the United States does not take them for granted. Hard as it is to resist the seductive charm of a Bill Clinton or Barack Obama, allies should not be acolytes.

*Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.
The writer, a former Australian foreign minister, is chancellor of Australian National University.

By Gareth Evans
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