US pivot is to build ties, including with China, says official

US pivot is to build ties, including with China, says official
The US wants good ties with China, and its security presence in the region is “not designed against any other country”, said Mr Scot Marciel, a senior US State Department official who was here last week.

The United States' pivot towards Asia aims to build cooperative partnerships with countries here, including China, said a senior US State Department official.

China has been wary about the "US pivot", or rebalance, since it was announced in 2011, seeing it as an attempt to contain its rise. It is also touchy on the South China Sea territorial disputes, in which it feels the US is taking the side of smaller claimants such as Vietnam and the Philippines.

But the US wants good ties with China, and its security presence in the region is "not designed against any other country", noted Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Scot Marciel.

"When we talk about the rebalance, the rebalance includes our relationship with China," said Mr Marciel, who is with the State Department's East Asian and Pacific Affairs Bureau.

Speaking to The Straits Times at the US Embassy last Friday, he highlighted as examples key cooperation pacts that the US and China had agreed on when US President Barack Obama went to Beijing last month for a state visit and to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit. These included a plan to combat climate change and a deal to cut tariffs on high-tech goods.

As for the US security presence in the Asia-Pacific, this has been ongoing for decades, he noted.

"We have longstanding partnerships with many countries in the region," he said. "It contributes to a peaceful and stable environment, and so we are very committed to continuing those."

The rise of China has, however, led to increasing competition in recent years between the world's two biggest economies for influence in the region. This was clearly seen in the lead-up to, as well as during, the Apec summit.

Before the summit, China launched the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) to finance infrastructure projects in Asia. The launch, however, was overshadowed by reports of developed economies such as Australia and South Korea staying away, reportedly due to US lobbying.

At the summit, China successfully got Apec leaders to endorse a road map towards building a Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP). That was seen as a pushback against the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact, which excludes China.

Singapore is in both the AIIB and the TPP.

Mr Marciel denied that the US' reservation towards the AIIB was a strategic check against China. "It is very much about making sure multilateral development banks continue to meet high international standards for governance and management," he said.

Critics had warned that the AIIB may not adhere to environmental and labour protection standards kept by existing development lenders.

Mr Marciel also did not see the FTAAP as being in conflict with the TPP. The FTAAP is a "longer-term" and "aspirational" goal, but the current US focus is on the TPP, where "a lot of progress" has been made.

On the repeated delays to the completion of the TPP, he said in defence: "The goal is a good agreement rather than a certain date."

Mr Marciel, a former US envoy to Indonesia, arrived in Singapore last Friday after visiting Indonesia and Brunei.

He met his Singapore counterparts on the same day.

Last Saturday, he gave a speech at the Young South-east Asian Leaders Initiative Workshop, funded by the US State Department, before leaving for Australia.

This article was first published on December 9, 2014.
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