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US President Barack Obama will visit Malaysia this week during his tour of Asian countries including South Korea, Japan and the Philippines.
His trip – which will include a visit to the National Mosque in the capital Kuala Lumpur – will mark the first time in nearly 50 years that a US president visits Malaysia, underscoring the White House’s focus on its strategic priorities in Asia.
“We increasingly see our top priorities as tied to Asia, whether it’s accessing new markets or promoting exports, or protecting our security interests and promoting our core values,” said National Security Adviser Susan Rice when Obama’s itinerary was announced late last week.
Obama’s week-long trip, which begins on Tuesday, was originally scheduled for October but was canceled because of the federal government shutdown at the time.
The Obama White House has for several years tried to boost US alliances with Asian countries and shift military focus there in a bid to implement a strategy of rebalance in the Pacific region.
The “Pivot to Asia”, which has become one of the Obama administration’s central foreign policy initiatives was announced during the current president’s first term in office.
“At a time of ongoing regional tensions, particularly with regard to North Korea and territorial disputes, the trip offers a chance for the United States to affirm our commitment to a rules- based order in the region,” Rice told reporters at a briefing on the upcoming presidential trip.
“No other nation other than the United States has a network of alliances and partnerships in Asia that match ours, and our alliances remain the foundation of our strategy,” she added.
Rice has previously said that 60 per cent of the US fleet will be based in the Pacific by 2020 adding that American “military presence in the region is vital to deter threats and defend allies”.
Chinese criticismThe rebalancing strategy of the US has been criticised by Beijing as a bid to contain its rising economic and political clout.
China has become the largest trading partner with most Asian countries and its direct investments in the region are surging.
According to the China-ASEAN Business Council, Chinese companies invested $4.42 billion in Southeast Asia last year, up 52 per cent from 2011.
A white paper on national defence released by China’s Defence Ministry last year said that the US “pivot” to Asia runs counter to regional trends and “frequently makes the situation tenser”.
“”There are some countries which are strengthening their Asia-Pacific military alliances, expanding their military presence in the region and frequently make the situation there tenser,” the ministry report said.
Furthermore, Beijing in November announced the establishment of the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone following which China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force conducted its first air patrol.
A map of an East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) released by the Ministry includes a chain of islands also claimed by Japan.
China and Japan are locked in a territorial dispute over a group of uninhabited islands known as the Diaoyu in China and the Senkaku in Japan.
Japan purchased three of the islands from a private owner last September, announcing plans to “nationalise” them.
Top US officials have reaffirmed American backing for Japan in its dispute with China over the islands. A security treaty with Japan would allow the US to protect its ally in case of “foreign intervention”.
Meanwhile, the South China Sea is considered one of the world’s most strategically important waterways and is exceedingly rich with minerals.
Last year, China and ASEAN had agreed to develop and abide by a model code of conduct governing the troubled region of the South China Sea.
China’s maritime dispute with the Philippines in the South China Sea had prompted the latter to come to an agreement with the US to develop its Palawan Island into a US military base.
Foreign policy expert Minghao Zhao says that international observers have good reason to worry about the trajectory of China-US relations.
“Japan and the Philippines – US allies in the Asia-Pacific — are unwilling to continue to shelve their territorial disputes with China while Beijing’s responses have been blamed as ‘revisionist and provocative’,” he writes.
“If the US abandons its “not choosing sides” policy line in these territorial disputes and decides to more explicitly back its allies’ claims, the probability of a China-US faceoff, even a limited armed conflict will soar,” he adds.
But Minghao also believes that the shift in the trading pecking order has reflected China’s rising global dominance while America’s ‘Asia pivot’ along with decades of heavy-handed policy gives Beijing an opportunity to rebalance global powers
The BRICS Post with inputs from Agencies