Washington taking soft and tough approach, say analysts

BEIJING - Chinese state media have slammed United States President Barack Obama's latest trip to Asia, particularly his pledge of protection for Japan and the Philippines, although analysts say Beijing should not over-react as Washington may lack the desire and ability to fulfil its promise.

The China Daily yesterday said Mr Obama's declaration that the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands - claimed by both China and Japan - fall under the US-Japan security treaty and his signing of a defence pact with the Philippines are obvious proof that Washington views Beijing as an opponent.

Tensions have run high between China and Japan over their territorial disputes and between Beijing and Manila over their rival claims in the South China Sea.

"With Obama reassuring the US' allies of protection in any conflict with China, it is now clear that Washington is no longer bothering to conceal its attempt to contain China's influence in the region.

It is even less convincing to say the US pivot to the Asia-Pacific is not targeted against China," the newspaper said in an editorial.

Also, Mr Obama's tour - which began in Japan last Wednesday, followed by stops in South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines - is a wake-up call to China's wishful thinking that "Washington will rein in its unruly allies when they go too far", the daily said.

"His sweet promises of a new type of major-country relationship should not blind us to the grim geopolitical reality: Ganging up with its troublemaking allies, the US is presenting itself as a security threat to China," it wrote, referring to the new model of relations Mr Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping have espoused.

But some observers have called for calm to Mr Obama's promise of American protection, saying it is triggered by vested interests and may be limited in reality by the US' budgetary woes.

"The US does think China has become very aggressive and assertive in recent months and sees a greater need to protect its interests and those of its allies," said Renmin University's Sino-US expert Shi Yinhong, citing concerns after Beijing launched an air defence zone last November in the East China Sea.

"But the US also has to talk tough to quell concerns among its allies over its ability to protect them. It was also promising protection in exchange for the allies' support towards the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)."

Talks among the 12 TPP nations have stalled due to an impasse between Japan and the US.

Also, with the Ukraine crisis and other global issues possibly stretching its resources amid lingering budgetary concerns, the US' short-term interest lies in avoiding conflict with China and its long-term goals should be to deepen cooperation with the rising superpower, say observers.

The need to balance between appeasing its allies and not antagonising China too much explains why the US may have used a mixed-messaging strategy. For instance, feel-good vibes rose on First Lady Michelle Obama's March visit to China before friction deepened on her husband's Asian tour.

"The US is trying to be soft and tough to China at the same time. It knows being all tough will hurt relations with us but being all soft hurts its pride and worries its allies," China Foreign Affairs University analyst Zhou Yongsheng told The Straits Times.

Thus, the US, as Mr Obama stressed in Japan, has not drawn a "red line" for China in its territorial disputes with Japan and the Philippines, he said, adding that China should not be too alarmed.

Similarly, Singapore-based analyst Hoo Tiang Boon believes China should not be overly worried that the US' allies may be emboldened to create "trouble" for it.

"The Chinese will be loath to admit this, but they are increasingly relying on the US to help restrain Japan. A stronger US presence may also help to reassure allies and dissuade them from taking things into their own hands," said the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies analyst.


This article was published on April 30 in The Straits Times.

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