America’s charm offensive and Chinese power will be key factors in determining the future shape of the Asia Pacific region.

United States President Barack Obama was on a charm offensive in Singapore on November 14 and 15 to win friends and influence the Asia-Pacific states. The importance of being Mr. Obama, a leader widely believed to have broken the mould of American politics, was expected to be of some help. However, the real extent of his success may become clear only when he completes his current East Asian tour in a few days’ time.

He left Singapore after meeting his counterparts in the forum of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in just the concluding brainstorming session. For the earlier sessions, he deputed U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He did so, because he felt compelled to delay his departure from the U.S. following a killing-spree at a military base at home. There was nothing amiss about Mr. Obama’s move on grounds of politics and protocol. In 1998, the then U.S. President Bill Clinton deputed Vice-President Al Gore to participate in the entire APEC Summit in Kuala Lumpur. The White House was at that time distracted by some actions of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

For whatever reason, Vice-President Joseph Biden was not asked to represent the U.S., for whatever period, at the just-concluded two-day APEC Summit. Instead, Mr. Obama asked Ms Clinton, his rival in the presidential primaries not long ago, to stand in for him on the first day of the meeting.

Mr. Obama’s choice clearly conveyed to the collective APEC forum a message in soft diplomacy: no dissonance in the citadel of American power. However, this year’s APEC Summit brought into sharp focus China’s growing power rather than America’s current clout and reserve capacities. Power quotients, as evident during the latest APEC Summit, reflect the relative strengths of individual economies and their respective political-security bases.

The subtle reality of Chinese power was widely acknowledged in the open discussions of the APEC chief executive officers (CEOs) in Singapore this time. The APEC CEO Summit is invariably held under the overall process of annual meetings of 21 Asia-Pacific leaders. APEC is a forum of individual economies and not independent states. Unlike the meeting of political leaders of economies that was held in camera as always, the APEC CEO Summit afforded opportunities for open discussions. Several leaders, including Chinese President Hu Jintao and Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, addressed the APEC CEO Summit.

Two aspects of Chinese power were addressed, directly and indirectly within a framework of perceptions that Beijing can stay the course of an upward graph. The rise of China as an economic powerhouse and its responses to the current global situation were seen in the context of Beijing’s robust political confidence.

Addressing the APEC CEOs, Mr. Hu presented proposals for stabilising global recovery which, in his view, was fragile at this stage. His proposals flowed from a sense of self-confidence that China could continue to weather the global crisis. The nucleus of his blueprint for worldwide recovery was the call for “a fair, just, inclusive, and well-managed international financial system.”

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn was mindful of China’s power. Asked by this correspondent to comment on Mr. Hu’s ideas, Mr. Strauss-Kahn said the IMF had already begun “a big shift.” In his view, “the beneficiary will be partly in Asia, namely China.” Mr. Strauss-Kahn, who briefed the APEC leaders, did not of course classify this “shift” as a step towards a new balance of economic power in the IMF. However, such a perception was implicit in his comment.

World Bank President Robert Zoellick, who also briefed the APEC leaders, was cognisant of Chinese power in his answer to a question from this journalist. Mr. Zoellick was the original proponent of the idea that China should play the role of “a responsible stakeholder” in the international system. In his view, China and India are doing some good for the current and potential global recovery by keeping their respective economies ticking and growing. It is, therefore, possible to infer from his answer that he tends to see China as a responsible stakeholder in the global economic domain.

Strategic coincidence

In the international political arena, Mr. Obama has in fact begun to see China as a responsible stake0holder. Without using this judgmental phrase in his Asia Pacific policy speech in Tokyo on November 14, Mr. Obama went on a charm offensive to woo China. He affirmed that Washington “does not seek to contain China.” It was like a strategic coincidence that he said this at about the same time as Mr. Hu’s presentation at the APEC CEO Summit in Singapore.

Mr. Obama said: “We welcome China’s effort to play a greater role on the world stage – a role in which their growing economy is joined by growing responsibility. China’s partnership has proved critical in our effort to jumpstart [global] economic recovery. China has promoted security and stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And, it is now committed to the global non-proliferation regime, and [is] supporting the pursuit of denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. … The rise of a strong, prosperous China can be a source of strength for the community of nations.”

At the same time, any deeper U.S.-China relationship would not weaken America’s current bilateral alliances with other key powers, Mr. Obama said. In fact, the U.S. and Japan had now reaffirmed their alliance and “agreed to deepen it,” he emphasised. Significantly, Mr. Hatoyama confirmed this while speaking on the sidelines of the Singapore APEC Summit.

This new understanding between the U.S. and Japan is, in part, the result of Mr. Obama’s charm offensive towards Tokyo. After all, Mr. Hatoyama was emphatic, before his recent poll victory, that he would seek to transform the longstanding Japan-U.S. alliance. He wanted a “close and equal alliance.” The latest accord in principle has the potential effect of reinforcing the closeness of the alliance. And, it now remains to be seen how Japan will move to bring about a greater equality in this equation. Tokyo and Washington do not, of course, see their alliance as some kind of a black hole, as in the outer space terminology, for Japan in global affairs. And, Mr. Obama himself has now recalled how former U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower had portrayed the alliance when it was fashioned. It was seen as “indestructible partnership” based on “equality and mutual understanding”, Mr. Obama now recounted.

Mr. Obama did not mention India at all in his Asia Pacific policy speech in Tokyo. What is more, India may face a new challenge in the Nuclear Suppliers Group as a result of his recent talks in Tokyo. Significant is his accord with Mr. Hatoyama on November 13 to explore ways to create a new framework for civil nuclear cooperation. On the wider Asia Pacific stage, new ideas have been floated for regional integration. These are Japan’s idea of an East Asian Community and Australia’s initiative for an Asia Pacific Community. America’s charm offensive and Chinese power will be key factors in determining the future shape of the Asia Pacific region.

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