US President Barack Obama will not visit China on his Asia tour this week, but its broadening shadow will be cast everywhere he goes at a time of complex regional disputes and questions about US strategy.
US China policy has been based for two decades on the goal of easing the emerging giant into the international system, while avoiding a classic geopolitical clash between an established power and a rising one.
China’s regional ascent is now reality, with its growing economic and military influence nudging and worrying neighbors who are looking to Washington as a counterweight.
China is the “leitmotif that’s going to be running through the trip,” said Christopher Johnson, a former CIA China analyst now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“The thing that both Beijing, and those of us who watch at all closely, will be watching will the president be saying the ‘C-word’ — China — on a regular basis throughout the trip,” Johnson said.
Obama will use visits to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines to placate allies uncertain over his diplomatic and military “rebalance” toward Asia — with Washington preoccupied by crises elsewhere, including in Ukraine.
However, he must at the same time find language that will not exacerbate suspicions in Beijing that the true aim of the rebalance is to contain China.
Obama’s tour will be his first to Asia since Beijing declared an air defense zone in the South China Sea last year, raising the temperature of festering maritime and territorial disputes.
Washington branded the move as “illegitimate” and ignored the zone by sending its aircraft through it.
However, the episode compounded worries in the US capital about Beijing’s ultimate military intentions, but the two countries have continued talking.
Obama met Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) in The Hague a few weeks ago, following their successful informal summit in California last year.
US officials appreciate Xi’s diplomatic style, which is more freewheeling than that of former Chinese president Hu Jintao (胡錦濤).
US First Lady Michelle Obama recently got a warm welcome in China, and the US president will go to the APEC summit in Beijing in November.
Washington was also intrigued by China’s decision to abstain, but not to veto, a UN resolution condemning Russia’s referendum in Crimea last month.
However, the potential for blunt exchanges remains, as evidenced by the public face-off between US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and his counterpart, Chinese Minister of National Defense Chang Wanquan (常萬全), over Japan and territorial questions this month.
US National Security Advisor Susan Rice says that the president will make clear that regional territorial disputes must be resolved “not through coercion, not through threats, not through anything other than peaceful diplomatic means based on the rule of law, particularly the law of the sea.”
Jeff Bader, who ran Obama’s first term White House East Asia policy, said the president faces a balancing act with Beijing inside its rebalance.
“The message for China is the US is here to stay in the Asia Pacific, that the US expects international norms to be respected and countries not to be bullied, and that the US has developed and will continue to develop a cooperative relationship with Beijing,” said Bader, now with the Brookings Institution.