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Obama and Asia’s Two Futures

TOKYO – Despite the relentless shift of global economic might to Asia, and China’s rise as a great power – the central historical events of our time, which will drive world affairs for the foreseeable future – America’s focus has been elsewhere. The terrorist attacks of 2001, followed by the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the Great Contraction of 2008, the Arab Spring, and Europe’s sovereign debt crisis, all diverted the United States from helping to create a lasting structure of peace to accommodate today’s resurgent Asia.

In November, US President Barack Obama can begin to redress this imbalance when he hosts the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in his native state of Hawaii. The meeting’s timing is fortunate, because a number of critical Asian issues are coming to a boil.

The South China Sea, for example, is now churning with competing claims to its islands, atolls, and sea bed, including China’s bold assertion that all of it is Chinese sovereign territory. At this year’s ASEAN summit in Bali, it was agreed that these territorial disputes be settled through bilateral negotiations. But the scope of Chinese claims doomed that agreement from the start; indeed, China now insists that the sea constitutes a core national interest, on a level with Taiwan and Tibet, for which it is prepared to fight.

China’s willingness to throw its weight around amplifies the grave imbalance in size, and leverage, between it and the other countries bordering the South China Sea. This has made bilateral negotiations to settle these disputes unviable. Vietnam and the Philippines have been bullied in this way recently, with both pushing back rather than submit to Chinese imposed terms.