Yesterday in Brisbane US President Barack Obama reaffirmed the Asian Pivot/Rebalance (transcript) which he presented in Canberra three years ago. But in doing so he presented a view of Asia's future, and especially of US-China relations, which was starker and darker than he gave in 2011. This makes the speech rather important. When future historians study the two speeches – and if they also look back to Obama's first big speech in Asia, in Tokyo in November 2009 — they will see clear evidence of how far America's sense of rivalry with China has intensified over the past five years, and especially over the past three years. They will see much less evidence of clear ideas about what America should do about it.
The significance of the President's words about Asia and China were somewhat overshadowed by the remarkable passage in his speech about climate change. I'll leave it to others to say what it might mean for climate policy, but it is worth noting what it means for relations between Canberra and Washington.
It is a very long time since any US president has publicly expressed his policy and political differences with his Australian counterpart as directly and even brusquely as Obama did yesterday, and to do so on that issue, at that time and place, was, well, very pointed. It is hard not to read it as a sign of how the Obama Administration sees Tony Abbott.
However, that matters much less than how the Administration sees Asia and China. Obama spoke more positively than he has done before about China's economic achievement and its significance for the welfare of the people of China, and of course he referred to the deal with Beijing on carbon emission targets. But he more than matched that with a distinctly adversarial tone in describing America's differences with China. These seem to me to be the key points:
- He spoke of 'genuine dangers' in Asia that can undermine progress, including 'Disputes over territory, remote islands and rocky shoals that threaten to spiral into confrontation'.
- He spoke of the need to choose between two visions of Asia's future: 'Do we move towards further integration, more justice, more peace? Or do we move towards disorder and conflict? Those are our choices — conflict or cooperation? Oppression or liberty?'
- He described America's vision of the regional order this way: 'We believe that nations and peoples have the right to live in security and peace; that an effective security order for Asia must be based — not on spheres of influence, or coercion, or intimidation where big nations bully the small — but on alliances of mutual security, international law and international norms that are upheld, and the peaceful resolution of disputes.'
- And he left us in no doubt as to whose was the alternative vision. Back in 2011 Obama devoted only one paragraphs of his speech directly to China. Yesterday he devoted four paragraphs to China, in which he indirectly but quite unambiguously implied that China at present is not a responsible international actor and is not good for the region. He said America would cooperate with China where interests overlap, but not where they differ. And he explicitly warned against making too many compromises with China to accommodate its interests and values where they might differ from America's.
All of these points are much starker than any language he has used about China before. Obama's stress on choices seems especially pointed, in view of successive Australian Government's instance that 'we don't have to choose' between America and China.
And just to reinforce the point, a couple of days before Australia's FTA with China is due to be finalised, Obama made two not-so-subtle digs at our economic relationship with China. At one point he spoke disparagingly of trade whose purpose is 'simply to extract resources from the ground', and at another he spoke of building a new economic structure in Asia under the US-led Trans Pacific Partnership in which countries are no longer 'dependent on a single market'.
Finally, although Obama repeated the assurances he has made before about his resolve to use 'all the elements of America's power' to impose America's vision of Asia's future on a reluctant China, he did not explain what more America would or could do, beyond what it has been doing for the last three years, to resist China's challenge to US leadership.
Obama therefore gave us no reason to believe he has an answer to what he himself clearly sees as China's increasingly powerful bid to create a 'new model of great power relations' in Asia.