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Obama's (and Hillary's) Pacific Century

Posted: December 6, 2011 - 1:00am

Was that the president of the United States, sailing across the Pacific Ocean, rallying allies — old, new and potential ones — and declaring this nation will remain a global power for many decades to come?

Anyone who was paying close attention to President Barack Obama’s November trip to Asia and other points in the Pacific had to admit the performance was something to behold. The president has never lacked in self-confidence. In the past, however, his plans to co-opt and cajole on the global stage have often fallen flat. This time, the president and his foreign policy team put on a display of planning, along with tactical and strategic thinking that sent a clear message and backed it up with action.

In a matter of a few days Washington pushed back against China with such a calibrated series of moves that it’s fair to say they transformed the psychology of the region. Beijing, Washington’s principal rival of the future, looked a little dumbfounded.

Beijing won’t stay that way for long. The next move is China’s. But the opening play in a 21st century global chess game went to team USA.

Still, the game is just starting.

Even before Obama set off for the first stop of his tour, a gathering of APEC — the 21-member Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation group — the administration had started laying out the agenda with an article by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Foreign Policy magazine. The telling headline: America’s Pacific Century.

Clinton announced that the United States is “pivoting” from the Middle East. The future, she said, will unfold in the Asia-Pacific region. America will “remain engaged and lead.” And to anyone wondering whether the United States will take action to back that vow, she responded unequivocally. “We can, and we will.”

There’s a good chance the Middle East will not cooperate. That region has a habit of becoming the center of attention. The secretary of state and her boss know they will not have the luxury of ignoring it. Still, the message was plainly stated. Washington will focus more closely on what you might call China’s neighborhood. After all, while Washington poured attention and resources into Iraq, Afghanistan and other points in the Greater Middle East, China moved aggressively to establish itself as a growing, sometimes bullying, power in the Pacific, particularly in East Asia.

On the first stop of his trip, in Hawaii, Obama reiterated Washington’s wishes to cooperate with China, but it was clear it plans to challenge China diplomatically, economically, and strategically. He started wading into a dispute that has created great anxiety among China’s neighbors over control of navigation and resources in the South China Seas. Washington demanded that the disagreements be resolved in a multiparty forum, rather than in country-to-country meetings, where China’s might is much harder to overcome.

Secretary Clinton reinforced the U.S. involvement with a carefully timed visit to the Philippines, where she spoke about “disputes ... in the West Philippine Sea.” That’s the name people in the Philippines give to the South China Sea. Ouch.

In Australia, Obama announced the deployment of 2,500 U.S. Marines in that country. You could see the Washington-Sydney team doing a little muscle-rippling maneuver, as Prime Minister Julia Gillard said American forces will gain access to Australia’s air bases as the U.S. Marine task force rolls ashore.

Throughout the trip, Obama and his team reinforced old alliances, peeked in the gaps between China and its friends and laid the groundwork for a renewal of American influence in the region. It was a far cry from the much less assertive displays we saw in the early days of the Obama administration.

The final touch was the announcement that Clinton would travel to Burma (also known as Myanmar) after direct communications between Obama and the iconic Burmese opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.

Clinton’s arrival in Burma on Wednesday marks the first visit by a U.S. secretary of state in half a century, and it is surprising on many levels.

First, it suggests the encouraging prospect that human rights may, just may, at last improve for the long-suffering people of that despotically ruled country. But it also shows that Washington may be successfully peeling away from China one of the regimes that has stood by its side.

As the United States prepares for a presidential election, the emerging rivalry with China will become an important subject of discussion. It’s not a war. It’s not even a cold war. It’s the route that great powers travel as they move through history. And in the history of what will become a great rivalry, the last few weeks saw Obama and Clinton carry the day.

• Ghitis writes about global affairs for The Miami Herald.

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