Architecture East Asian Style

The East Asia Summit has begun in Bali, Indonesia, and is generating a lot more interest than such powwows normally do. The reason: we are seeing a recommitment by the United States to maintaining the stability of the Indo-Pacific area.

While the US never left the area, there was a fair amount of concern was to whether the US was preparing to walk away from the region or at least concede the area to China. That this was even being seen as a possibility was a consequence of the Obama administration’s first year G-2 strategy. It earned them nothing much other than to make most Asian countries wonder if the US had the will or the way to stick around.

But Beijing’s aggressiveness over the past two years has ensured that the US has not merely abandoned G-2, it has embraced a far more vigorous Asian engagement than before.

Barack Obama laid out some of this in his speech at the Australian parliament where he spoke of the US being an Asian power, that their would be no budget cuts for its Asian security presence – important given the widespread belief that US woes would force a G-2 policy on the US whether the latter liked it or not, and finally that the US was going to position 2,500 Marines in Darwin.

The last caused some eyebrows to rise, but it was, I suspect, deliberate overkill to compensate for the first year of wishy-washiness. There is no greater symbol of commitment than to put your own flesh and blood on the line.

Added to this has been the recent resurrection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an Asia-Pacific free trade agreement that effectively cuts out China. With Japan, Mexico and Canada declaring their intentions to sign up to the partnership, it now has some serious economic heft.

The hedging will continue, but at least the building of a regional architecture now definitely includes the US which makes the options narrower and removes a variable from the equation.

India, as is its wont, will wait and see how the whole kit and caboodle shapes up in the region before committing itself – at least publicly. It would prefer the US be around to help out, but won’t be publicly saying anything. And when it comes to the Indian Ocean, the mood in Delhi is that region’s architecture is best left handled solely by India.

There is no shortage of regional architecture blueprints – Japan, Australia and Andy Panda all have a plan it seems. But with the US recommitting itself to Asia, it is likely that the US will begin to push the region towards an environment arrangement that it would like to see.

This new commitment plus the TPP will be particularly important in helping resolve the biggest contradiction of Asia: everyone is economically hand in glove with China but militarily trying to find means to balance against China.

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