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China Reacts to Obama’s Foreign Policy Shift

China Reacts to Obama’s Foreign Policy Shift

Chinese aircraft carrier Varyag

In response to President Barack Obama’s Jan. 5 announcement changing the emphasis of U.S. defense and foreign policies from Europe to Asia, China’s foreign ministry said that the expanded U.S. military presence in Asia is based on a miscalculation of Beijing’s intent to modernize its military defenses.

“The accusation targeting China in the document has no basis and is fundamentally unrealistic,” said Liu Weimin, a ministry spokesman. "China adheres to the path of peaceful development, an independent and peaceful foreign policy, and a defensive national defense policy.”

Obama’s new defense strategy shifts the emphasis of American foreign policy and military away from Europe to the Pacific Rim.

Looking beyond the past 10 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama wrote: “U.S. economic and security interests are inextricably linked to developments in the arc extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean region and South Asia, creating a mix of evolving challenges and opportunities. Accordingly, while the U.S. military will continue to contribute to security globally, we will of necessity re-balance toward the Asia-Pacific region.”

The Asia-Pacific region has become America’s largest trading partner, hence the move to change focus. Although recording a massive trade deficit with China ($245 billion as of October 2011), the U.S. runs trade surpluses with other Asian countries and Australia. In November 2011, the U.S. formed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an agreement among Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam and the U.S. The agreement is designed to enhance trade and investment; promote innovation, economic growth and development; and support the creation and retention of jobs among members.

The partnership is the commercial element of the Obama administration’s strategy to make the Asia-Pacific region a top priority. The growing markets of the region already are key destinations for U.S. manufactured goods, agricultural products and service providers. As a group, TPP countries are the fourth largest market for U.S. goods and services. U.S. exports of goods to the broader Asia-Pacific totaled $775 billion in 2010, a 25.5 percent increase over 2009, and 61 percent of total U.S. world exports of goods.

But the prosperity brought by peace and stability depends on America’s ability to rein in what the Association of Southeast Asian Nations sees as the growing Chinese military threat. So the U.S. must continue to project power in the Pacific Rim. “China’s emergence as a regional power will have the potential to affect the U.S. economy and our security in a variety of ways,” Obama wrote. ”Our two countries have a strong stake in peace and stability in East Asia, and an interest in building a cooperative, bilateral relationship. However, the growth of China’s military power must be accompanied by greater clarity of its strategic intentions in order to avoid causing friction in the region.”

China’s Intentions in Question

There is growing concern in Asia and the U.S. over China’s intentions in the Pacific Rim. China has been expanding its naval strength by building the world’s largest fleet of diesel submarines, and is building an amphibious fleet modeled after those of the Marines and Navy. The first Chinese aircraft carrier is currently at sea and another is planned. China has increased its missile and surveillance capabilities, which extends its offensive reach in the region.

China’s neighbors, and Washington, are increasingly concerned by what they perceive as aggressive behavior in the South China Sea. In addition to claiming ownership of the energy-rich Spratly Islands, China’s fishing fleet has initiated repeated armed incidents in Japanese, Philippine and South Korean waters.

Under Obama’s new strategy, the U.S. will deploy the Marines, Navy and aircraft to Western Australia, and will continue to maintain bases in Japan and South Korea. Basing 2,500 Marines in Australia, which was announced in November 2011, is designed to counter any attempts by China to block trade and access to the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca.

Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, complained that the U.S. was “trying to get involved in a number of regional maritime disputes, some of which concern China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have reason for concern. China claims a 200-mile “Economic Exclusion Zone” that reaches into the South China Sea, the Yellow Sea and the Sea of Japan, and infringes on South Korean and Japanese territorial waters. The zone is not recognized under international law. With $5 trillion worth of trade flowing through this region annually, an American presence is considered an important counterweight to China’s increasing assertiveness.

China has sought to balance wariness about U.S. moves with a desire for steady relations with Washington as both sides grapple with domestic politics this year. China’s ruling Communist Party President Hu Jintao will retire and Obama faces a re-election fight.

As he faces re-election and budget battles, the president is looking ahead on how to preserve American military preeminence. “The question that this strategy answers is what kind of military will we need long after the wars of the last decade are over," Obama said at a Pentagon news conference. The troop- and time-intensive counter-insurgency operations, a staple of land-war strategy since the 2007 Iraq troop surge, would be far more limited as Obama focuses the military on maritime efforts in Asia.

Not surprisingly, China sees things differently. “The accusations leveled at China by the U.S. side in this document are totally baseless,” Geng Yansheng, a spokesman for China’s ministry of defense, said on Jan. 9. “We hope that the United States will flow with the tide of the era, and deal with China and the Chinese military in an objective and rational way.”

Andrew Lubin

Andrew Lubin is an author and independent foreign correspondent.

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