The East Asia Summit will be the second gathering in a week that brings President Obama and senior Chinese officials together for a regional meeting. It follows an economic summit in Hawaii last weekend that left Chinese officials and analysts taken aback when the U.S. president said Beijing needed to “play by the rules” in international trade.
In advance of the Bali meeting, Liu Zhenmin, China’s deputy foreign minister, told reporters Tuesday that it would be inappropriate for the South China Sea dispute to make its way onto the agenda. But in a speech to the Australian Parliament on Thursday, Obama singled out “cooperation in the South China Sea” as being among the “shared challenges” to be discussed at the session.
Several countries in the region — notably the Philippines and Vietnam — have sought closer ties with the United States as a hedge against what they see as China’s aggressiveness. The announcement by Obama of a new agreement to base a small number U.S. military personnel in Australia starting next year was aimed in part as a sign of a U.S. security commitment in Southeast Asia.
In his speech to the Australian Parliament, Obama said the United States would seek “more opportunities for cooperation” with China. But he also said Washington would “continue to speak candidly with Beijing about the importance of upholding international norms and respecting the universal human rights of the Chinese people.”
Among the friction points between the United States and China, a particular source of tension is the U.S. push for a new free-trade pact, called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, which pointedly does not include China. Beijing sees the development of the TPP as a political move, to create a U.S.-dominated counterweight to a rival trade bloc of Southeast Asian countries plus China, Japan and South Korea, known by the acronym ASEAN Plus Three.
After Obama called in Hawaii for China to follow the rules on international trade, a senior Chinese Foreign Ministry official issued a retort, saying that “if the rules are decided by one or several countries, China does not have to observe them.”
In addition, Obama’s continued criticism of the value of the Chinese currency, the renminbi, or yuan, has prompted some Chinese analysts to express concern that the two countries may be heading again for a period of tension, after several months of relatively cordial relations.
“President Obama wants to intensely push on all fronts,” said Zhu Feng, a professor at Peking University’s School of International Studies. “It’s very, very depressing. Of course, it’s targeting China. It’s a new East Asian strategy.”