President Obama greets Chinese President Hu Jintao and other dignitaries… (Larry Downing, Reuters )
Reporting from Honolulu and Washington — At virtually every point in President Obama's nine-day Asia-Pacific trip, he is expected to deliver a message aimed squarely at China: that the U.S. will recommit to the region and serve as a reliable counterweight to Beijing's growing military and economic might.
The theme emerged soon after Obama touched down in his birth state, Hawaii, for a weekend summit with the leaders of 21 Asia-Pacific countries. In a private meeting with Obama, Chinese President Hu Jintao said his nation was revaluing the yuan and moving gradually toward a more market-based currency policy, a U.S. official said. But Obama, who said China's economic practices put the U.S. and other countries at a disadvantage, told Hu the changes weren't coming swiftly enough and that China needed to pick up the pace.
Obama used the summit to signal America's larger strategic aims for the Asia-Pacific region. After a decade of fighting in Afghanistan and eight years in Iraq, the U.S. wants to shore up its alliances with nations jittery about China's rise.
"No region will do more to shape our long-term economic future than the Asian-Pacific region," Obama said at a Sunday news conference.
Ben Rhodes, a spokesman for the National Security Council who is traveling with the president, said in an interview that the administration wants to send a clear message about how it's adjusting its international focus.
"We are now going to engage economically, politically and on a security basis in new ways to shape the future of the Asia-Pacific" region, Rhodes said.
Obama earlier announced progress toward a new pact with eight Asia-Pacific nations that would create a trade zone through an arrangement officials referred to as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The deal, involving Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam, would seek new standards for environmental protections, antipiracy measures and labor rights.
U.S. officials suggested that China fell short of the standards for inclusion in the partnership. Obama said in his news conference that Chinese trade practices give the world's second largest economy an unfair advantage, adding, "We're going to continue to be firm in insisting that they operate by the same rules that everybody operates under. We don't want them taking advantage of the United States or U.S. businesses."
But the president, in brief comments to reporters before meeting with Hu during the weekend, also said he was hopeful of a good relationship with China despite ongoing differences.
"I am confident that the U.S.-China relationship will continue to grow in a constructive way based on mutual respect and mutual interests," he said.
During a visit to Australia later in the week, Obama is expected to announce the U.S. will gain more access to military bases in northern Australia — a potential staging ground to counter Chinese military moves. The president is also likely to review China's territorial claims in the South China Sea while attending a summit in Indonesia.
China claims that it has jurisdiction over most of the South China Sea — a point challenged by the Philippines, Malaysia and other countries. In recent months, China has staged military exercises in the South China Sea and clashed with Vietnamese ships exploring for oil.
Adm. Robert Willard, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, told reporters in Hawaii on Sunday that the South China Sea is a vital hub that "carries an immense amount of commerce." A major U.S. goal is to "maintain maritime security and peace and not see disruptions as a consequence of contested areas," Willard said.
Obama has repeatedly said how important the Asia-Pacific region is to the U.S.
"The United States is a Pacific power and we are here to stay," the president said at a weekend business forum.
Some countries, nevertheless, remain concerned about the United States' ability to pay adequate attention to the region. Obama twice postponed a visit to Australia in 2010 — first because of the battle over healthcare legislation, the second time as a result of the BP oil spill. Defense cuts and budget pressures feed a sense that America can't sustain a commitment to far-flung areas.
"The main theme of U.S.-Asia relations right now is reassuring the region that the U.S. intends to be a permanent strategic player, maintaining if not increasing its presence, despite the doubts that people in the region have about U.S. staying power because of the budget fight," said Denny Roy, senior fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu.
One incentive for the U.S. to step up its presence in the region is that the inhabitants seem to want it there, U.S. officials say. They see the U.S. as a bulwark against China's dominance.
Ernest Bower, a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that in light of its newfound economic power and its military might, China in recent years has become more assertive, including on issues such as control of the South China Sea.
"The rest of Asia is saying, 'No, you can't. We want your growth, but we are afraid of what China might do and what China wants,' " Bower said. "That's why they want the Americans there."