U.S. President Barack Obama's recent decision to skip an important Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting (and subsequent visits to Southeast Asian nations) to remain in Washington and deal with his government's fiscal impasse has drawn an overabundance of alarmist commentary from pundits worldwide.
In the minds of some commentators, Obama's decision to cancel his attendance amounts to a strategic withdrawal of the U.S. "pivot to Asia" and a chance for China to strengthen its control over the region. They point to the itinerary of his substitute, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who spent a mere 24 hours in Malaysia and abandoned a planned trip to the Philippines.
Kerry was planning on ironing out the details of an agreement allowing increased rotational presence of the U.S. troops in the Philippines. Kerry's pilots advised him, however, to postpone his trip due to the impending threat posed by Tropical Storm Santi. Kerry also drew criticism from some quarters for being too soft with the Chinese foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, over the South China Sea, in what seemed to be a polite closed-door meeting during which the dispute did not seem to have taken up much time. The Chinese state-run news organization, Xinhua, summed up the situation in a commentary arguing that with the possibility of the U.S. defaulting on its sovereign debt, the time has come for a “de-Americanised world," adding that, “such alarming days when the destinies of others are in the hands of a hypocritical nation have to be terminated."
While the U.S. was perceived to be busy with domestic affairs, the Chinese launched a full diplomatic offensive with trips by President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang to a number of neighboring countries. Beijing's efforts seem to be paying off. Its latest diplomatic achievement is in Vietnam, where the two sides agreed to form a working group to jointly explore the disputed waters of the South China Sea. Xi also witnessed the signing of $28.2 billion of deals between Indonesian and Chinese firms in Jakarta.
Premier Li spent two days in Thailand, inspecting a Chinese high-speed rail exhibit in Bangkok, and also met with Brunei officials to seek closer cooperation on maritime oil and gas resources. Xi also proposed a regional infrastructure investment bank to finance infrastructure projects in ASEAN countries. Such actions by Beijing to negotiate on a bilateral economic basis run counter to efforts by the Philippines and the U.S. to urge ASEAN to stick together in its territorial disputes with China and establish a universal code of conduct for the South China Sea and other parts of the region.
While much has been written about the U.S. losing its "pivot to Asia" due to domestic fiscal problems at home, these fears are overplayed. As a young federal employee, I recall the U.S. government shutting down from Nov. 14 to 19, 1995, and from Dec. 16, 1995, to Jan. 6, 1996, and everyone thinking the worst. We continued working, and eventually were paid, but at the time it seemed like a financial Armageddon and a permanent weakening of the federal workforce.
While the U.S. government is far from having solved its fiscal crisis (merely postponing it until February or March), Beijing cannot possibly be looking forward to a sovereign default on its substantial holding of U.S. government debt. Furthermore, the U.S. is not the only country with problems at home in need of attention. Typhoon Fitow landed in southeastern China the first week of October, devastating many populated regions. Residents of the hard-hit city of Yuyao in Zhejiang province gathered in protest after state-run television reported that all had returned to normal. Authorities have since dispatched riot police to control the protestors who are denouncing what they decried as inadequate relief efforts and demanding the local Communist Party secretary and mayor step down. The protests in Yuyao are not a one-off, as hundreds of thousands of protests like Yuyao take place each year in China.
Through its leaders' diplomatic efforts, Beijing is making the right moves by attempting to increase economic cooperation among the mainland and its neighbors. But even with the U.S. playing a less significant role due to domestic problems, the latest diplomatic surge by China can only go so far. China is seriously lacking in soft power, and its smaller neighbors still harbor suspicions based on decades of distrust.
Economic integration can chip away at this distrust, and joint development of resources in the East and South China Seas is certainly welcome, but this will not happen overnight. Despite this missed opportunity by Washington, China's neighbors will continue to look to the U.S. as their guarantor of security, even if Uncle Sam may be delayed due to domestic problems, or rely increasingly on other regional nations' defenses.
Gary Sands is a writer for the Foreign Policy Association and a private equity financial adviser in Shanghai.