BEIJING — With the Obama administration’s high-profile pivot toward Asia this week — pushing for a new free-trade agreement with at least eight other countries and securing military basing rights in Australia — China is feeling at once isolated, criticized, encircled and increasingly like a target of U.S. moves.
China’s nervousness is compounded by unease that a meeting Friday and Saturday of East Asian countries in Bali, Indonesia, will become the setting for renewed U.S. criticism of Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.
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.”
Zhu said he feared that the Chinese government would react to feeling isolated — particularly if the United States pursues the TPP free-trade agreement with Australia, Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, Peru, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam and, perhaps, Japan, without China being invited to join. And the one area where Beijing could react is the economic arena, where the United States and China had lately been acting more cooperatively, even as they continued to disagree on the issue of currency valuation.
“What worries me for the moment is, economically China’s backlash could be very serious,” Zhu said. “Economics has turned out to be common ground for both sides. Now I have to say security elements will complicate China’s view of economic engagement.”
Some analysts said China’s response to the United States’ new Asia posture is for the moment likely to be restrained. China is facing a leadership change in 2012, they noted, and Beijing is unlikely to make any moves that might upset the carefully choreographed transition.
The tougher language from the United States was expected by several analysts, as Obama enters into reelection campaign mode and does not want to be criticized by his Republican rivals for being “soft” on China.
Several analysts also said the U.S. pivot toward Asia is coming from a position of weakness, not strength. With severe economic problems continuing at home, and Europe struggling with projected low growth and the euro crisis, the United States hopes to take advantage of Asia’s growing markets and high growth rates.
“The unilateral U.S. maneuver to expand its influence in the region is noticeably motivated by opening up new markets in the region for U.S. goods and services so as to lower its domestic high jobless rates,” China’s official Xinhua News Agency said in a stinging editorial Thursday. “Moreover, Obama, whose job approval rating continues to slip, seems to be staking his reelection on high-profile diplomatic ambitions in Asia Pacific, as he is failing to bring America’s slack economy back to the path of strong growth in his first term.”
Most Chinese analysts said Beijing accepts that the United States remains a Pacific power, as Obama recently went out of his way to declare. China, the analysts said, is a growing presence in the region, but not one yet ready to compete with the United States.
“China . . . has neither the strength nor intention to vie with the U.S. for dominance in Asia-Pacific affairs,” Yang Danzhi, with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, wrote in a prominently displayed commentary in the China Daily newspaper.
Another expert, Tao Wenzhao, a senior researcher with the Institute of American Studies, agreed with that assessment. “China doesn’t have any intention to compete with the U.S. for leadership,” Tao said. “China has a long way to go to be compared with a superpower like the U.S.”
But, analysts here said, China expects to be taken seriously as a player in the East Asian region. And the analysts feared that any U.S. moves seen as provocative might only push a nervous China to take defensive measures.
“If the U.S. tries to be provocative . . . and treat China as a rival, it will definitely trigger an arms race and put East Asia in a tight spot,” said Sun Zhe, an international relations professor at Tsinghua University. “This is what alarms me most.”
Researcher Liu Liu in Beijing contributed to this report.