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World looks to Asia as China & the US strive for influence

BRUSSELS -- World attention is understandably focused on the violence in the Middle East but it is also important to take a closer look at U.S. President Barack Obama's re-engagement with Asia and the Sino-American jostling for power and influence in the region.

America's military presence looms large over Asia, reassuring many who worry about China's rising military expenditure and new assertiveness over territorial claims in the South and East China Seas.

Across Asia there is a strong consensus that the U.S. “pivot” to Asia announced last year is designed to contain a rising China.

Washington insists its new policy is not related to China's growing power or a permanent return to military bases of the past, but it has increased its military presence in the Philippines and other areas near vital sea lanes in the South China Sea.

Most Asians welcome America's renewed interest — and increased military presence — in the region. But many are also unwilling to get entangled in a dangerous tug-of-war between the world's two most important powers.

First of all, good relations between the world's first and second largest economies are critically important for Asian stability as well as global peace. Second, while they may like America's warm military embrace, most Asian countries depend hugely on China for markets, especially for their commodity exports and for investments.

Third, while willing to discuss, consult and cooperate with their partners, the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) want to ensure their “centrality” in the region.

In other words, America, China, Russia and even Europe are welcome to attend meetings and sign up for trade pacts. But it is ASEAN that intends to stay in the driving seat, controlling the region's future direction.

For evidence of the new power play in Asia, look no further than President Obama's much-publicized visit to Myanmar and the confusion and bad blood on show at the ASEAN and East Asia summit meetings just held in Cambodia.

The U.S. leader's trip was rightly viewed in the region as a validation of Asia's strategic importance. But Obama also came quickly face-to-face with the tough realities of what it will take to counter China's influence in the region.

Establishing a bigger, more influential presence in the Asia-Pacific region has long been an Obama objective, a goal that analysts say is driven by 21st-century geopolitical considerations and by the Hawaiian-born president's own self-identity as the first Pacific president.

Just by making the trip — and by making it his first after his re-election — Obama made a point about the importance the U.S. attaches to the region. He was greeted by large crowds chanting his name in Thailand and in Myanmar. But the U.S. leader received a more muted reception in neighboring Cambodia, a staunch ally of China.

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