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Uncle Sam too senile to lead Asia

18:10, October 09, 2010

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By Li Hongmei

China will send its Defense Minister to attend a meeting in Hanoi of defense chiefs from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and eight other invited countries, which may witness the first handshake between the defense chiefs of China and the U.S. since the bilateral military ties were damaged in January following the Pentagon's decision to sell a nearly 6.4-billion-U.S.-dollar arms package to Taiwan.

But the South China Sea issue, while high on the U.S. agenda, has been brushed off the Chinese list. China's consistent stance is that the South China Sea issue is not an issue between China and ASEAN, nor can the issue be discussed under the framework of ASEAN+8.

Uncle Sam, instead, is expected to play the same old tune taking the South China Sea disputes to the international court in favor of its interests, while taking great lengths to align with ASEAN countries, and distance China from its neighbors.

President Barack Obama last month told leaders of Southeast Asian nations the U.S. has an "enormous stake" in the region and intends to play a leadership role in Asia, explicitly delivering the message to the regional leaders that US is seeking the "US-ASEAN realignment" in Asia.

Back to last November, Obama pledged that he would be a ‘Pacific president.' While the audience then present may have wondered about what exactly that statement meant, few in attendance doubted the sincerity or conviction of the president.

As a matter of fact, the U.S. is trying to reset its relationship with ASEAN, especially since the latest series of ASEAN-hosted diplomatic meetings in Hanoi. When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attempted desperately to involve her country in the regional affairs and internationalize the South China Sea issue, the meaning of a Pacific president is starting to become clearer.

Three cases in particular warrant special mention---the East Asia Summit, the South China Sea and the Korean Peninsula. In all the three cases, what the United States has been trying to do is to draw closer the ASEAN countries, while distancing China from the decision-making process.

The fact that the meeting convened in September in the United States more than betrays its true color of "comeback" to Asia, in that the U.S. has long planned to institutionalize and renew the U.S. engagement in ASEAN in creating "new regional security and trade architecture in Asia."

On the flip side, the fact that the summit is taking place in New York, not Washington, and without the leader of ASEAN's largest country and economy, Indonesia, underlines the point that while the US policy intent is clearly substantive engagement, there is still much work to be done to engage ASEAN. In particular, With the United States' economy flagging and its global influence in decline, Uncle Sam would be walking with great difficulty on the way to meet its goal.

Of late, the U.S. even goes so far as to state it is willing to help craft a legally binding "code of conduct" that will govern actions in the South China Sea in order to end a territorial dispute between ASEAN members and China that threatens regional stability.

Beyond doubt, Uncle Sam will be not only interested in using its meddling hand to help ink the regional document, but it will push China to agree to it unconditionally.

Viewed from a practical prism, the so-called US-ASEAN realignment as the US has been assiduously seeking after is far from an ironclad wholeness, but a patchwork. The Free Trade Pact the ASEAN countries have been yearning for cannot be granted by the U.S., owing to its mounting domestic pressure and sluggish economy. Likewise, the U.S. intention in aligning with ASEAN countries to encircle China and encroach upon China's regional preeminence seems nothing but an empty talk, as the ASEAN countries could not and would not start the conflict with China, a giant with whom they have already formed a well-established and win-win cooperative mechanism.

Instead, on the chessboard of Uncle Sam, all the ASEAN countries as well as China are taken as the chess pieces which can be positioned at will and as he sees fit, even though the senile Uncle always overestimates his intelligence and obstinately believes he is the unchallenged player.

The sad fact is that, although he has a splendid history left behind, today's Uncle Sam is unable to retrace his powerful yesterday. The robust emerging economies are enlivening the skyline of a new Asia, out of its own design. Uncle Sam is at the moment an unexpected guest to the region, let alone gaining the initiative and leading the hosts.

The articles in this column represent the author's views only. They do not represent opinions of People's Daily or People's Daily Online.

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About this column

Li Hongmei, editor and columnist of PD Online.


Li HongLi Hong

After 19 years working for China Daily and its website, Li Hong moved to english.people.com.cn in March 2009.

Li has been a reporter and column writer, mainly on China's economy and politics.

He was graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University, and once studied in University of Hawaii and the Poynter Institute in Florida.

Dai MinJohn
Dai Min

John Milligan-Whyte and Dai Min, the executive producers and co-hosts of the Collaboration of Civilizations television series adapted by the eight books they wrote in the America-China Partnership Book Series published in English and Mandarin in 2009-2010 that created the "New School of America-China Relations." They founded the America-China Partnership Foundation and Forum in 2008 and the Center for American-China Partnership in 2005, which was recognized in 2009 as "the first American think tank to combine and integrate American and Chinese perspectives providing a complete answer for America and China's success in the 21st century."