Thu, Nov 29, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Growing US, China rivalry deepening rifts in Asia

The discord that marred a recent series of regional summits highlighted how nations around the region are worried that they might be forced to choose between Beijing and Washington

By Elaine Kurtenbach  /  AP, BANGKOK

Illustration: Mountain People

All the usual rituals of international summits were there: the group photographs, the gala dinners, the noticeably vibrant shirts leaders force themselves into, but eclipsing all of that at Asia’s two big meetings was some unusually forthright criticism that exposed deepening divisions rattling the region.

Front and center was the rivalry between the US and China. The two countries are locked in a widening trade dispute and their representatives used the summits to exchange barbs and maneuver to expand their influence.

Competition between the great powers is not new to the region, but over decades of war, financial crises and other setbacks, countries across Asia and the Pacific Rim have used these annual meetings to talk through such problems, usually opting to sideline disagreements in a show of unity. Consensus, not conflict, is typically the norm.

This year was different.

The clash between the world’s two biggest economies is shaking the bedrock of regional amity and leaving some countries worried they will be forced to choose between Beijing and Washington.

It also might bode poorly for compromise between US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) when they meet this weekend at the G20 gathering in Argentina.

The antagonisms kicked off at the ASEAN summit in Singapore, where US Vice President Mike Pence, standing in for Trump, declared that “empire and aggression have no place” in the region, a clear reference to Chinese expansion in the disputed South China Sea.

The discord carried over to the annual APEC forum in Papua New Guinea, where leaders failed for the first time in nearly 30 years of such gatherings to endorse a final joint statement.

China apparently pushed back hard against US demands for strong language against unfair trade practices.

Pence and Chinese leaders sparred at both summits, with the US vice president describing China’s militarization and expansion in the South China Sea as “illegal and dangerous.”

He accused Beijing of threatening the sovereignty of many nations and said it “endangers the prosperity of the world.”

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (李克強) smacked back, urging fellow leaders to send a positive message to markets ruffled by the trade dispute, which has seen both sides imposing punitive tariffs on billions of dollars of each other’s exports and has the potential to unravel supply chains across the globe.

The acrimony might be somewhat less apparent at the G20 gathering in Buenos Aries, which will include leaders from across the globe and the focus will be global, not regional.

However, the strains between the US and China were painful enough in Singapore that the gathering’s urbane host, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (李顯龍), appealed for a bit less candor and greater camaraderie, saying it would be easier if everybody was “on the same side.”

Across Asia, countries worry they will have to “choose one or the other,” he said. “I hope it does not happen soon.”

Most Asian nations are loath to make such a choice because they benefit from the rivalry, whether economically, militarily or both.

For most of them, China is their largest trading partner, but they are wary of China’s military might, and see the US and its presence in the region as a welcome counterbalance.

China’s footprint was everywhere in the Papuan capital, Port Moresby, from a showpiece boulevard and international convention center built with Chinese help to bus stop shelters sporting “China Aid”’ plaques.

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