By Stephen Collinson ,AFP
WASHINGTON — U.S. President Barack Obama will not visit China on his Asia tour next week, but its broadening shadow will be cast everywhere he goes at a time of complex regional disputes and questions about U.S. strategy. American China policy has been based for two decades on the goal of easing the emerging giant into the international system while avoiding a classic geopolitical clash between an established power and a rising one. China’s regional ascent is now reality, with its growing economic and military influence nudging and worrying neighbors that look to Washington as a counterweight.
China is the “leitmotif that’s going to be running through the trip,” said Christopher Johnson, a former CIA China analyst now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The thing that both Beijing and those of us who watch at all closely will be watching … will the president be saying the ‘C-word’ — China — on a regular basis throughout the trip?”
Balancing Act Obama will use visits to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines to placate allies uncertain over his diplomatic and military “rebalance” toward Asia — with Washington preoccupied by crises elsewhere, including in Ukraine.
But he must at the same time find language that will not exacerbate suspicions in Beijing that the true aim of the rebalance is to contain China. Obama’s tour will be his first to Asia since Beijing declared an air defense zone in the South China Sea last year, raising the temperature of festering maritime and territorial disputes. Washington branded the move as “illegitimate” and ignored the zone by sending its aircraft through it.
The episode, however, compounded worries in the U.S. capital about China’s ultimate military intentions.
But the two sides have continued talking. Obama met Chinese President Xi Jinping in The Hague a few weeks ago, following their successful informal summit in California last year.
U.S. officials appreciate Xi’s diplomatic style, which is more freewheeling than that of former Chinese leader Hu Jintao.
First lady Michelle Obama recently got a warm welcome in China. And the U.S. president will go to November’s APEC summit in Beijing. Washington was also intrigued by China’s decision to abstain but not to veto a U.N. resolution condemning Russia’s referendum in Crimea last month.
But the potential for blunt exchanges remains, as evidenced by the public face-off between U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and his counterpart Chang Wanquan over Japan and territorial questions this month.