Obama in Asia, and the elephant in the room

President Barack Obama is deciding whether the US-China relationship will be one of cooperation or conflict.

Gwynne Dyer

Poor old Tony Blair is condemned to spend the rest of his life trying to justify his decision to help George Bush invade Iraq. He was at it again recently, insisting that the threat of Islamist extremism is the great problem of the 21st century. Western countries, he said, must put aside their differences with Russia and China in order to “cooperate” in the fight against radical Islam.

President Barack Obama, however, is tending to his real priority in world affairs: deciding whether the US-China relationship will be one of cooperation or conflict. Not that that is the stated purpose of his current Asian tour. Officially he is discussing a free-trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, with three countries that have already joined the negotiations (Japan, Malaysia and the Philippines) and one that probably soon will (South Korea).

It’s a very big deal. The 12 countries on the Pacific Rim that are currently in the negotiation — Canada, the United States, Mexico, Peru and Chile on the eastern side, Japan, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand on the western side — account for nearly 60% of global GDP and over a quarter of world trade. But there is an elephant in the room (or rather, not in the room): China.

China is  the second-largest economy in the world and trades extensively with almost every member of the Trans-Pacific  Partnership (TPP) — but it is not part of the negotiations, or at least not yet. If it is kept out permanently, many consequences will follow.

Keeping China out of this planned free-trade area, the biggest in the world, is economically attractive to the current members, and especially to the United States and Japan: the TPP would give  US and Japanese companies preferential access to Asia’s markets. But the real motive driving the deal is strategic: they are all worried about what happens when China’s military strength matches its economic power.

The Chinese regime insists that it has no expansionist ambitions, but it has alienated most of its neighbours by pushing hard on its extensive claims to islands in the East China Sea (the dispute with Japan over the Senkaku/Diayoyu Islands)  and to seabed rights in the South China Sea (where it has disputes with Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines). They all want to nail down US support, including military backing, if those disputes flare into open conflict.

That is not to say that a great-power military confrontation in Asia is imminent, let alone that China is really expansionist. What drives the process, as usual, is more likely to be the threat that each side sees in the power of the other.

Asked in a recent BBC interview about President Obama’s decision to shift US naval forces from an equal division between Atlantic and Pacific to a 60:40 ratio in favour of the Pacific, retired Major-General Xu Guangyu, former vice-president of the People’s Liberation Army Defense Institute, replied: “How would (the Americans) like it if we took 60 percent of our forces and sailed up and down in front of their doorstep?”

Then Xu added: “We want to achieve parity because we don’t want to be bullied. It will take us another 30 years.” That’s no more than anybody else wants, and it’s hardly imminent.

Former US Assistant Secretary of State Philip J. Crowley was expressing essentially the same sentiment when, commenting on Obama’s trip, he said that “Many traditional allies … value a strong US presence in the region to balance against an assertive China.”In other words, it doesn’t take evil intentions to produce a tragedy. In any case, it’s not likely to happen soon. The point for the moment is that the strategic balance in Asia is what the US cares about most, not the Middle East or even Russia.

The United States still drops drones on the heads of various bearded fanatics in the greater Middle East, but they are just a nuisance, not a real strategic threat.

Washington has just sent 600 American troops (600!) to reassure allies in eastern NATO countries that are worried about Russian intentions, but it doesn’t really anticipate a new Cold War with Moscow, nor would it feel really threatened if that happened. Russia is not the old Soviet Union, and the US defence budget is ten times Russia’s.

The real strategic game is now in the Asia-Pacific region. Which doesn’t mean that it’s any less futile and dangerous than it was in the old days.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent

journalist based in London.

Just Posted

The Kimberley Refugee Resettlement Group is active again after a few years off and are working to find a home for Gloria in Kimberley. Photo taken at a KRRG fundraiser several years ago. Bulletin file.
Kimberley Refugee Resettlement Group active once more

KRRG working to find a refugee a safe place to live in Kimberley

The Kimberley Aquatic Centre is set to reopen its doors to the public on July 6, after being shut down due to the pandemic in March, 2020. The Centre will be initially operating with reduced occupancy and limited program offerings. Bulletin file.
Kimberley Aquatic Centre set to re-open July 6

New safety infrastructure, limited guests and programming allow facility to open again

Interior Health is reporting a COVID-19 exposure at Selkirk Secondary in Kimberley. Bulletin file.
COVID-19 case identified at Selkirk Secondary in Kimberley

Interior Health is conducting contact tracing

The Kootenay International Junior Hockey League met for their AGM and announced a number of new initiatives, new awards and changes in their executive committee, as well as the starting date for the 2021-22 season. Paul Rodgers file.
KIJHL announces start dates for 2021-22 season

Season set to begin Oct. 1 with league still following all health guidelines

Calvin Dickson photo.
Severe thunderstorm watch in effect for East Kootenay

Conditions favourable for the development of thunderstorms, hail and heavy rain

People watch a car burn during a riot following game 7 of the NHL Stanley Cup final in downtown Vancouver, B.C., in this June 15, 2011 photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Geoff Howe
10 years ago: Where were you during the 2011 Vancouver Stanley Cup Riots?

Smashed-in storefronts, looting, garbage can fires and overturned cars some of the damage remembered today

(Black Press Media file)
Dirty money: Canadian currency the most germ-filled in the world, survey suggests

Canadian plastic currency was found to contain 209 bacterial cultures

(pixabay file shot)
B.C. ombudsperson labels youth confinement in jail ‘unsafe,’ calls for changes

Review states a maximum of 22 hours for youth, aged 12 from to 17, to be placed in solitary

Grace (left), a caribou that was born in a maternal pen north of Revelstoke, is alive and well said the province. It appears she even has a calf. Maternity pens aim to increase caribou calf survival by protecting them from predation until they are older and less vulnerable. (Contributed)
For the first time in years, caribou numbers increasing near Revelstoke

North herd growing but south herd still concerning

Eleonore Alamillo-Laberge, 6, reads a book in Ottawa on Monday, June 12, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Parents will need to fight ‘COVID learning slump’ over summer: B.C. literacy experts

Parents who play an active role in educating their children this summer can reverse the slump by nearly 80%, says Janet Mort

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Kelowna General Hospital. (File photo)
COVID-19 outbreak at Kelowna General Hospital declared over

Three people tested positive for the virus — two patients and one staff — one of whom died

The border crossing on Highway 11 in Abbotsford heading south (file)
Western premiers call for clarity, timelines on international travel, reopening rules

Trudeau has called Thursday meeting, premiers say they expect to leave that meeting with a plan

The B.C. government’s vaccine booking website is busy processing second-dose appointments, with more than 76 per cent of adults having received a first dose. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C.’s COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations stable for Tuesday

108 new confirmed cases, 139 in hospital, 39 in intensive care

Most Read