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July 27, 2017

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US seeks to latch onto Asian star

U.S. President Barack Obama's recent schedule reflected just how deeply the United States is getting involved in Asia and, at the same time, sent clear signals that despite its severe budgetary problems, its involvement in the region is sure to deepen.

This is a major shift for Washington which, while extricating itself after long years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, is attempting to hitch its economic wagon to Asia's rising star. At the same time, it is trying to maintain positive relations with Beijing while offering its security blanket to countries in the region anxious about China's growing heft.

How China responds to this wide-ranging strategic shift will to a large extent shape the political landscape of the region. It is too early to speak of a new cold war, but there are signs that the countries of Southeast Asia, at least, are being told to choose sides.

President Obama's Asian schedule began in Honolulu, where he held a meeting with China's President Hu Jintao on the margins of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, chaired this year by the United States. He publicly asserted that China was "grown up" now and must abide by international trading rules.

Seven days later, he was in Bali, Indonesia, for a meeting of the East Asia Summit, and a private talk with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. This time, politics was in the forefront, as he and most of the other leaders present insisted on talking about the problems of the South China Sea, despite China's objections.

In between, the U.S. leader was in Australia, where he announced an expanded American military presence in the country. "Our enduring interests in the region demand our enduring presence in this region," he told the Australian Parliament. "The United States is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay."

So far, the official Chinese reaction has been moderate. The foreign ministry, asked for comment, did not take offense at Obama's "grown up" remark, simply saying that it is up to the international community to judge whether China has behaved responsibly.

In Indonesia, Premier Wen, after saying that "outside forces" should not be involved in the South China Sea dispute and that the matter should not be discussed in the East Asia Summit, delivered a measured response after the issue was raised by 16 of the 18 leaders present despite Chinese objections.

This rejection of China's position showed that, when the United States is around to back them up, the vast majority of countries in the region are willing to stand up to China despite its impressive economic, political and military rise.

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