The United States is “pivoting” toward Asia. This strategy was formally publicized last month with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s essay on “America’s Pacific Century.” This week, President Barack Obama has been visiting Asia to push for a Trans-Pacific trading bloc and stronger military ties with US allies. How are major Asian powers reacting to America’s strategy to “re-engage” the Asia Pacific region? Today’s post highlights Chinese, Russian and Japanese views on the economic aspects of this strategy.
Chinese officials have so far made only brief comments on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), all of which express China’s support for regional economic integration but stressing its preference for existing mechanisms. Assistant Commerce Minister Yu Jianhua said any trade mechanism should be “open and inclusive,” while Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei said economic integration should proceed in a “step-by-step manner.”
Commentary in the press characterized the TPP as a part of a wider strategy to contain China:
- Li Hongmei, editor of the People’s Daily Online, wrote that “the U.S. intends to play a dominant role in the to-be Trans-Pacific architecture by handpicking its members and systemizing and regulating them in political and military spheres in accordance with its own standards so as to turn out a comprehensively economic and political alliance under the U.S. leadership.”
- In addition to similar criticisms, a Global Times editorial pointed out that “any Asian cooperation with the absence of Beijing will not have much heft. China never lacks channels for conducting cooperation with its regional counterparts.”
Academic opinions leaned toward a “wait-and-see” attitude:
- Wang Yuzhu of the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies at Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said, “Economic regionalism is China’s most pragmatic choice, because the international architecture is changing rapidly. China has to recalibrate its relations with the rest of the world.”
- According to Lu Jianren, deputy director of the APEC Study Center at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, “How the TPP negotiations will progress is still a matter of great uncertainty. What can be certain is it will be strategically detrimental to the old ASEAN Plus Three coalition, which has long been lagging behind in forming a free-trade zone that can allow a level of economic unity in the region.”
As Russia gears up to host the 2012 APEC summit in Vladivostock, commentary on U.S. re-engagement in Asia was introspective, questioning Russia’s own unique orientation as both a European and Asian state.
- An article in the state-run RIA Novosti cited Asia’s prominence in global trade as a driving factor for pushing U.S. policy eastwards. Referencing APEC’s announcement that it has lowered regional trade costs by 5 percent, the author noted that “21 very different economies have quietly created a common economic mechanism by using methods contrary to those of the EU (the Europeans favor universal and stringent regulations)” and contemplated Russia’s role as both a European and Asian state as it prepares to host the 2012 APEC summit in Vladivostock.
- Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of the Russia in Global Affairs journal, echoed these sentiments, adding that “the Asian challenge will change Russia’s view of the world and force it to reevaluate its traditional-and now largely anachronistic- focus on the West.” Consequently, Lukyanov notes that “Russia needs a comprehensive Asian strategy, including efforts to develop its Far East and secure its position in Asia.”
- On the TPP, President Dmitry Medvedev took a wait-and-see approach, stating, “I don’t really understand what will result from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. When it is really operational and bears fruit, then I would say that this so-called club could become interesting for us.”
At the APEC summit earlier this week, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda announced that Japan would partake in the TPP negotiations, generating a flurry of debate and widespread media coverage questioning the role Japan should play in the negotiations, if any.
Those opposed to Japan’s participation in the TPP cited pressing domestic issues that should take precedence:
- “Reconstruction and healing must precede entry into TPP,” read one Japan Times headline, labeling Noda’s decision as “unwise and naïve, suggesting an ignorance of pressing domestic concerns such as the social and economic effects of March 11.”
- Several articles in the Mainichi Daily News urged Prime Minister Noda to take initiative in allaying concerns among the general public about Japan’s participation, adding that Noda “cannot win broad public support for participation…unless he shows a determination and willingness to take the lead in explaining why.”
Others editorials appeared cautiously optimistic, highlighting the possibility of an increased regional presence for Japan:
- “Japan has emerged from an extended period of quietness to underscore its presence in economic diplomacy,” declared one editorial, noting that Canada and Mexico quickly expressed their interest in participating in the free trade accord shortly after Japan’s announcement. A high-ranking official in the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry added, “There was likely concern about being left behind if they [Canada and Mexico] did not join in the creation of TPP rules that would likely become the future standard for the Asian market.“
- Arguing that the “linchpin of Japan’s diplomacy is its relationship with the United States,” a commentator in the Asahi Shimbun praised Tokyo’s efforts to enhance its ties with Washington. “From this point of view, the TPP can give Japan diplomatic leverage in dealing with China.” At the same time, the Asahi urged Japan to “serve as an intermediary between the TPP countries and China.“
Our next blog post will examine Asian reactions to the geopolitical dimensions of America’s ‘pivot’ toward Asia.