The just concluded APEC conference is already being lauded as an unequivocal success. In particular, China's vision for the Free Trade Area of the Asia - Pacific has been hailed by one and sundry.
APEC members big and small have given China's inclusive approach to economic integration and partnership a resounding vote of confidence. This is consistent with the theme of the conference: inclusiveness, partnership and togetherness. But political tensions remain despite clear progress made at the landmark APEC conference.
Handshakes all-round among the participating leaders symbolized a fresh and optimistic outlook, and China should be applauded for creating such an amicable atmosphere amid a multitude of strained political relations across the region.
China-Japan relations were the focus of attention for many before, during and immediately after the conference. President Xi Jinping could not have demonstrated greater diplomatic acumen than having a brief meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, even though the Japanese government is yet to issue any sort of public apology for the country's wartime atrocities and give a hint that Japanese leaders would refrain from visiting Yasukuni Shrine, which, among others, honors 14 Class-A war criminals.
But despite that, China-US relations remain of paramount importance for the long-term, significant progress in economic integration and partnership across the Asia-Pacific region. Rather, it is the US' genuine acceptance of China as the leader and engine of growth in the Asia-Pacific that is needed, and needed right now.
While US President Barack Obama and President Xi appeared to have a relaxed and engaging meeting over dinner, soon followed by some relationship-building rhetoric by Obama, the US needs to say and do a lot more to convince all APEC members of China's leading role in the region.
The announcement by Obama to provide more favourable visa terms for Chinese nationals visiting and staying in the US, and then declaring that this is "good for US jobs", falls woefully short of the sort of change needed in the US foreign policy for the Asia-Pacific to thrive, and thrive smoothly.
The US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership is a classic example of apparent American rhetoric; it is more of an oxymoron in terms of Asia-Pacific foreign policy. Apparently Obama "welcomes the rise of a prosperous, stable China". Yet he continues to exclude the major driver of growth in the region, if not the world, from participating in the TPP discussions. And he sticks to his position despite only 12 of the 21 APEC members having signed up to participate in the TPP since its inception in 2009.
Obama has to not only publicly accept the rise of China, but also appreciate its development. The US president should make it clear that China has a legitimate right to lead the Asia-Pacific region and map out the path toward the goal of economic integration and trade liberalization across the Pacific-Rim.
The TPP presents a perfect opportunity for the US to announce such a radical shift in its Asia-Pacific policy. In fact, a face-saving way of doing so is for the Americans to offer some sort of integration of the exclusive TPP with the now clearly inclusive China-led Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific. The US needs to wake up to the fact that the world, especially the Asia-Pacific region, is no longer its playground.
In other words, the US has to accept that any Asia-Pacific economic integration process without the inclusion of China, and without China taking the lead, is a bit like The Rolling Stones without Mick Jagger.