Obama wakes up to China's challenge in Asia

Obama wakes up to China's challenge in Asia
Illustration for the article "Obama wakes up to China’s challenge in Asia".

Is China backing off? Some people think so, after the recent flurry of regional summitry from Apec in Beijing via the East Asian Summit in Naypyitaw to the Group of 20 (G-20) in Brisbane.

In moves like the climate deal with US President Barack Obama and the handshake, however awkward, with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, they detect signs of a more accommodating diplomacy from Chinese President Xi Jinping.

But not Mr Obama, who seems more worried about China than ever. In Brisbane during the G-20 meeting, he delivered his sternest warning yet about China's threat to peace and stability in Asia.

In a remarkably toughly-worded speech, he urged regional countries not to accommodate China's leadership ambitions by compromising their core values and interests simply in order to curry favour and build trade with Beijing.

Two days later, as if to underscore US concerns, Australia laid out the red carpet for Mr Xi when he visited Canberra after the G-20.

There, he finalised a new free trade agreement, and delivered a major speech of his own to the Australian Parliament. He spelt out in confident and reassuring, but quite uncompromising, terms his vision of China's future and its new role as "the big guy" in Asia.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott responded very warmly to Mr Xi's speech. He praised Mr Xi's commitment to democracy and his respect for international norms of good conduct, and rejected any suggestion that China's regional vision might give cause for any concerns.

"When I listened to the President today," he commented later, "some of the shadows over our region and over our world lifted and the sun did indeed shine brightly."

All this went far beyond courtesy to an honoured guest, and was especially surprising from a leader who is even more pro-American than most Australians.

It suggests that Mr Abbott is one of those who have fallen for Mr Xi's charm offensive, and still underestimates the seriousness of China's challenge to Asia's traditional US-led regional order.

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