The U.S.-China battle for influence in Asia is set to intensify as President Barack Obama makes a Pacific trip to launch a key free trade initiative, forge a permanent U.S. military presence in Australia, and hold summits with East Asian leaders.
In the opening salvo of his nine-day trip, Obama will launch a tariff-busting Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit he will host in his home state Hawaii on Nov 11-13.
China, which is among the 21 member economies of APEC, has chided the goals of the free trade initiative as "too ambitious."
Even so, Chinese leaders said the initiative should be “open and inclusive” rather than "exclusive" and should not replace wider trade regimes such as the global trade liberalization efforts of the World Trade Organization.
The TPP, currently being negotiated by Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States, and Vietnam, could also include Japan, setting the stage for an Asia-Pacific-wide free trade zone.
The U.S.-led initiative, aimed at leveling the playing field between heavily government subsidized state-owned enterprises and privately owned firms, can pressure China to open up its critical industries, analysts say.
"[T]o many observers, it seems a thinly-disguised means to counter China's growing economic influence," said Jonathan Pollack, a North Asia expert at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.
Others say that by devising a trade pact with high standards for countries to join, Washington is merely creating incentives for China to conform to international law and standards.
"The idea is to build consensus in the region about a coherent set of regulations that might push China in a helpful direction," said Nina Hachigian, an analyst at the Washington-based Center for American Progress.
"These sort of initiatives are not part of a strategy of 'containment' of China, which is not possible or desirable. No Asian country would ever sign up to an anti-China alliance," she said.
China has surpassed Japan to become the world's second-largest economy after the U.S. but many are concerned that Beijing will use its newfound wealth—its foreign reserves have swollen to more than three trillion dollars—to beef up its military in an opaque fashion.
China's harassment of vessels from its neighbors in disputed waters in the South China Sea, which Beijing fully claims, has often been cited as an example of the new assertiveness by the Asian giant.
Vietnam and the Philippines particularly have called for greater U.S. engagement in the region to check the growing Chinese military might.
In a sign of heightened concern over China, Obama will announce during his visit to Australia that the U.S. will to begin rotating Marines through a base in Darwin in a permanent new military presence, according to Australian media reports.
"This is all about the rise of China, the modernization of the People's Liberation Army and, particularly, it's about the increased vulnerability of U.S. forces in Japan and Guam to the new generation of Chinese missiles," Alan Dupont, a professor of international security at Sydney University, was quoted saying.
"The new Chinese missiles could threaten them in a way they've never been able to before, so the U.S. is starting to reposition them to make them less vulnerable."
Two-thirds of U.S. Marines are based in the Pacific, with big concentrations at American bases on Okinawa Island in Japan and Guam, a U.S territory 2,000 kilometres (1,242 miles) north of Papua New Guinea.
From Australia, Obama will fly to Indonesia's Bali island for back-to-back summits with the 10 leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and an expanded gathering of the ASEAN leaders and those from China, India, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, Japan, and South Korea.
This is the first time the United States will attend the 18-nation East Asia summit.
Officials said Obama plans to raise maritime security concerns that could highlight Southeast Asian nations' suspicions over Beijing's military ambitions following increasingly tense confrontation over rival claims to the resource-rich waters.
Obama wants to transform the East Asia summit as a forum to debate political and security issues, they said.
"The President identified that there is a gap in Asia, that while the infrastructure for collaborative discussion on economic issues is fairly well developed, there was nothing adequate on the political and security side," said Danny Russel, the White House's senior director for Asian affairs.
Experts at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation say that while some may advise the U.S. to maintain a relatively low profile during America’s first year of full membership, Obama should "push toward actionable results on security matters, and make common cause with other countries in the region, including Japan, India, the Philippines, and Vietnam, to balance growing Chinese influence."
"Asia clamors for a decisive leader and potential counterweight to China," said Walter Lohman, director of the foundation's Asian Studies Center. "President Obama, on his EAS debut, should demonstrate that the U.S. will remain that leader."
Others say while security remains in the forefront of issues raised with China, equal emphasis should be given to the human rights situation in the world's most populous nation, especially the security crackdown in Tibet and Tibetan-populated areas in China where 11 self-immolation protests have occurred this year.
Obama is scheduled to meet with Chinese leader Hu Jintao on the sidelines of the APEC summit.
“President Obama should raise the issue of self-immolations directly with Hu Jintao and other heads of state during the APEC meetings," said Leonard Leo, the head of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
"Tibet is burning and Beijing should not be allowed to ignore it,” Leo said.
"The President should urge an immediate end to the police presence at the [restive] Kirti monastery and seek to mediate substantive and direct discussion between Beijing and [Tibet's spiritual leader] the Dalai Lama.”