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13 Nov, 2009 16:00

Will Asia prove resilient to Obamania?

Will Asia prove resilient to Obamania?

As US President Barack Obama kicks off his week-long tour of Asian capitals, he does so with American power severely challenged, and Russia watching closely.

Although much attention is being devoted to the economic side of the US president’s Asian trip – where he will make stops in Japan, China, Singapore and South Korea – Obama has many other pressing problems on his plate not intimately involved with money matters or raw fish.

Toying with Tokyo no more

In Tokyo, the first stop on his itinerary, Obama will meet with Yukio Hatoyama, the Japanese Prime Minister who won over Japan’s increasingly American-phobic electorate on the campaign promise of being more assertive with the United States.

US military forces have been stationed in Japan since Tokyo’s surrender in 1945, and it is becoming increasingly obvious that the Americans, which have largely determined Tokyo’s foreign policy for 5 decades, have worn out their welcome [According to a report by Japan’s House of Representatives, between 1952 and 2004 US troops have been responsible for some 200,000 accidents and crimes, which led to the death of 1,076 civilians. In a sensational case in 1995 that threatened the immediate closure of all US bases, three US servicemen were found guilty of abducting and raping a 12-year-old girl from Okinawa]. Tokyo is now in the process of reviewing leasing agreements for some 50,000 US troops stationed in the country.

Despite Obama’s mesmerizing articulation that electrified town squares during his April trip to Europe, Japan will prove more resistant to the allure of “Obamania.” Thus, there is little chance that he will convince Hatoyama to continue Japan’s participation in the Afghanistan war, for example, the problem-plagued US-led military mission that has fallen dramatically out of favor with the Japanese people.

Finally, and perhaps most shocking for the US, Hatoyama in October floated the idea of creating an EU-style Asian trading bloc, tentatively called the East Asian Community, which would exclude the participation of the United States.

“It’s not in America’s interest,” Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, told Japanese media in September, “to see a dialogue or a formation come together that excludes the United States.”

In Tokyo, Obama will be fighting an uphill battle to restore America’s lackluster shine, which got severely tarnished during the reign of George Bush II, who was in Tokyo on November 3 to throw out the ceremonial first pitch before Game 3 of the Japan Series – Japan’s equivalent of the World Series – between the Yomiuri Giants and Nippon Ham Fighters.

Hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside the stadium protesting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that were started by the Bush administration in 2001 and 2003, respectively. Protesters carried signs saying, "Arrest Bush," and "Bush Go to Jail."

Can Obama tackle the Wall of China?

At the start of next week, Obama will enter the most significant part of his trip, traveling to Shanghai and Beijing, where he will have meetings with Chinese President Hu Jintao and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.

The America president will spend the majority of his Asian visit in China, the rising global powerhouse that some say will shove America off its pedestal within the next decade, maybe earlier.

A number of hot-button issues continue to drive a wedge between the two powers, including the question of Taiwan’s autonomy, Tibet (where the Dalai Lama has requested a private meeting with Obama much to Beijing’s irritation), and the smoldering question over what to do with Afghanistan.

But these perennial issues aside, the competition for the global commanding heights that some say exists between Beijing and Washington is underscored by a glaring fact: China and the United States, for all their hidden animosity and ideological diversity, are intensely dependent on each other.

This mutual dependency includes dangers so potentially disruptive that there is actually the threat that both states, in the event of the “perfect economic storm,” could become, if not irrelevant, then dramatically weakened.

China makes no secret of the fact that a large part of its “economic miracle” depends upon exports, as opposed to domestic consumption, largely to the United States. But the relationship remains one-sided, with China enjoying a huge trade imbalance with Main Street, USA.

The trade surplus between China and the United States was US$24 billion in October, compared with $13 billion in September, bringing the total for the year to date to $159.23 billion.

This trade discrepancy will certainly register on Obama’s “to-do” list in China.

“China's surging trade surplus,” writes the Asia Times, “with the increase last month almost double the September figure, makes it impossible that trade issues will not be a key topic when United States President Barack Obama makes his first visit to Beijing this Sunday.”

“Trade tension between the two countries was already rising before the latest data were released on Wednesday,” the article continues, “with the US imposing a series of anti-dumping sanctions on Chinese imports and Beijing investigating the possibility of action against imports from the US.”

With these incredibly one-sided figures, the Chinese government is anxious to paint a positive picture before Obama’s arrival.

“Compared to the huge common interests and benefits brought about by bilateral trade,” Qin Gang, spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, told reporters, “the problems in trade relations are secondary.”

Another “problem” that binds the two nations inseparably together (the US dollar will be "an anchor chained to China’s neck in the event the global economy sinks," as one financial analyst put it) is the fact that communist China holds the greatest share of US Treasury debt at a whopping $801.5 billion. This peculiar scenario has been described as the economic equivalent of “mutually assured destruction” that once kept a tense peace between the Cold War-era nuclear foes, the United States and the Soviet Union.

Beijing fears that Obama’s audacious bailout plan to “save institutions too big to fail” – from banks to car manufacturers to entire cities – by relying heavily on freshly minted money courtesy of the US Federal Reserve, will stoke inflation, together with a precipitous drop in the value of the dollar.

In other words, China does not want to be sitting astride a mountain of US banknotes if or when the dollar tanks.

Meanwhile, Obama will take over where his predecessor, George W. Bush, left off and continue to badger Beijing about its undervalued currency, which China refuses to peg to the US dollar, the world’s so-called reserve currency.

“We expect calls for yuan revaluation to be soundly rebuffed,” predicted C. Fred Bergson, director of the Peterson Institute for International Economic, as quoted by Market Watch.

But both sides understand – especially as the world continues to gingerly extricate itself from the clutches of economic contagion – that attempting any radical restructuring of the economic relationship may be risky at this particular juncture.

"As we emerge from an emergency situation, a crisis situation, I believe China will be increasingly interested in finding a model that is sustainable over the long term," Obama told reporters in Washington before his departure. "They have a huge amount of US dollars that they are holding, so our success is important to them … The flip side of that is that if we don't solve some of these problems, then I think both economically and politically it will put enormous strains on the relationship."

Yet another issue that continues to dog US-China relations involves Beijing’s efforts to be recognized as a bona-fide free market player, with membership in the World Trade Organization.

Commerce Ministry spokesman, Yao Jian, urged the US to follow pledges made recently at the 20th China-US Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade talks in Hangzhou, capital of east China's Zhejiang province. There, US Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke said that the US would review granting China market economy status.

"We continue to discuss what it will take for China to be declared a market economy," he was quoted as saying by the China Daily.

China wants the US to speed up recognition of China as a market economy, ahead of the 2016 deadline agreed on when Beijing negotiated entry into the World Trade Organization. China hopes market-economy status will give the country more leverage in trade disputes.

"By not recognizing China as a market economy, the US is acting in a discriminatory manner," Yao said.

Russia still in the game

Moscow will not be confined to the sidelines of the US president’s Asian trip. In fact, Obama will have a private meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on November 15 at the 21-nation Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Singapore.

The APEC summit, with this year’s theme “Sustaining Growth, Connecting the Region,” will focus on economic growth, cooperation, trade and investment across the Asia-Pacific region.

Incidentally, APEC is one of the few international organizations that Taiwan is allowed to join, albeit under the name “Chinese Taipei.”

According to the APEC Secretariat, the organization’s objective is to enhance economic growth and prosperity in the region and to strengthen the Asia-Pacific community. Members account for approximately 40 percent of the world's population, approximately 54 percent of global GDP and about 44 percent of international trade.

Aside from purely economic matters, the one burning issue that demands the full cooperation of Beijing, Moscow and Washington is North Korea.

Pyongyang accelerated its isolation from the global community by refusing to return to the negotiating table alongside China, South Korea, Japan, the US and Russia ever since it thumbed its nose at global opinion by going ahead with an underground nuclear test described “as powerful as the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.”

But unfortunately it seems there is more chance of divergences between Moscow and Washington where China is concerned than consistencies.

One area of China-Russian cooperation that has Washington concerned is in the field of defense sales. Since Moscow and Beijing signed an agreement on military-technical cooperation in December 1992, China has purchased more defense-related products from the Russian Federation than all other countries combined.

“During the 1990s, the value of these deliveries ranged up to $1 billion annually,” writes Richard Weitz in a report for the Strategic Studies Institute (“China-Russia Security Relations: Strategic Parallelism without Partnership or “Passion?” August 2008).

“In recent years," Weitz continues, "this figure has approached $2 billion annually. According to one estimate, between 1992 and 2006, the total value of Russian arms exports to China amounted to approximately $26 billion worth of military equipment and weapons… well ahead of the United States.”

As a result of Russia’s newfound salesmanship skills, China is now the proud owner of some of Russia’s most fearsome military hardware, including the Su-27 Flanker fighter jet, Su-30 multirole aircraft, T-72 main battle tank, and a variety of naval vehicles, including submarines and destroyers.

Thus, China, with Russia's technical assistance, is not only becoming feared as a growing economic superpower, but a military one as well. Yet Beijing only spends one-seventh of its GDP on military spending, as compared to America's military budget, which just below $700 billion per year.

Beijing joined Moscow in voicing its displeasure over every US-led military engagement since NATO forces bombarded Yugoslavia in 1999. Today, both nations are united in their support of Iran and its right to obtain nuclear energy [although Moscow has stated recently that it would support sanctions if Tehran did not comply with UN officials and hand over its uranium reserves to Russia for enrichment].

Moscow and Beijing continue to play down their relationship, but there is far more that unites the bordering nations than divides them when it comes to the United States. Most of this is due to America’s recent spate of globetrotting and warmongering in the name of spreading democracy, courtesy of the Bush administration.

Hopefully, Barack Obama will find a way to bury those recent memories, thereby making a trilateral relationship between Beijing, Moscow and Washington more than just a dream.

Robert Bridge, RT