One of the many unfortunate consequences of the government shutdown and the budget debacle is that President Obama canceled his trip to Asia. In Brunei, he missed the meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The session was to be a crucial part of the Administration's "Pivot to Asia." Secretary of State Kerry was forced to express President Obama's "apologies" for not being there.
This is a critical time for the nations of Southeast Asia and for their relationship with Washington and Beijing. Many of them are nervous about China's growing assertiveness and its efforts to dominate the region. Beijing is not only their powerful trading partner, but has been aggressively pursuing disputes with these nations in the South China Sea.
The United States, anxious to confront and to blunt China's growing military power and muscle flexing, is attempting to gather these nations under a U.S. security umbrella. At the Brunei conference, Obama was scheduled to lead a special U.S. session with the Association.
His failure to show could have severe repercussions. These nations had hoped for U.S. support in pushing back against China. Everyone realized that Obama had a sound reason for canceling the trip but delegates were complaining that Southeast Asia is not the top priority for the United States.
The stakes are huge in this part of the world. The shipping lanes in the South China Sea carry more than half the world's trade. Substantial deposits of oil and gas are in the seabed. When disputes have arisen as they have recently between China and the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal, the Chinese have attempted to bully the country into submission rather than permitting a resort to the rule of law. Nations like the Philippines will only push back against China if they are confident the U.S. will back them.
An additional erosion in the U.S. position in Asia occurred a day before the Brunei conference when Obama was also a no show at the Asia Pacific Trade Summit in Bali. Charismatic Chinese President Xi Jinping moved right into take the top billing. In covering the conference, the Chinese media gloated over the "star" performance of their president. A Hong Kong newspaper flatly declared in an editorial that "The influence of the U.S. is questioned more and more." One senior Asian politician described President Obama's no show at the conferences as "stark raving mad."
Guess who did show up? Russian President Putin was there and gloating. He smirked when asked about President Obama's absence. Once again, the opportunistic Putin is trying to catapult himself onto the world stage at the expense of the United States.
Until a few years ago, our primary competition with China was economic. With the soaring Chinese economy, it is only a question of time, decades at most, until China surpasses the United States as the world's largest economy. Chinese universities are graduating five times as many engineers as the United States. They are now our bankers holding the treasury bonds and notes which keep the United States afloat in the amount of $1.277 trillion as of July.
At the same time, Chinese is moving aggressively to tie up energy and other natural resources. It is doing so with a massive foreign aid program ($671 billion between 2001 and 2011). Most of that aid is given to develop resources which will be exported to China.
History is change. Unless the United States does something radically different or unless the Chinese miracle of operating a booming economy in a repressive society implodes, the question is when China will surpass us economically. Not whether.
It would be convenient to continue to view China's competition with the United States in purely economic terms. But that would be naïve and foolish. We can no longer close our eyes to the fact that China's defense spending has risen by twelve percent or more a year for the last decade. China now has more active military personnel that the U.S....2.3 million versus 1.6 and almost as many bombers...132 to 155. It has produced its first aircraft carrier.
A special unit in the Pentagon is dedicated to carefully monitoring China's military expansion. Another unit is playing war games that pit the United States against China.
Thus far, the U.S. has a technological edge in military systems. However, China is catching up to the U.S. in sophisticated military technology thanks to Chinese hackers. This is one of the topics of my new novel, The Russian Endgame, which was published in September. Confirmation was provided in a May report for the Pentagon concluding that the designs for more than two dozen major weapons systems were breached by Chinese hackers.
Against the background of this growth in Chinese military power, the two countries repeatedly challenge each other throughout the world. Nowhere is there competition more intense than in Asia. Obama's cancelation of his trip to Asia, albeit for good reasons, has dealt a setback to Washington's Pivot to Asia and to its response to rising Chinese power.