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‘And speaking of China…’ Obama’s hope for Asia

Rebalancing towards Asia…with values. Dan Peled/AAP

US President Barack Obama took to the stage at the University of Queensland in Brisbane on a day which had the soles of your shoes melting.

We had been through a complicated but reasonable security process. Most of the 2500 odd people in the room were young and starstruck. Many of the mingling Australian VIPs were similarly starstruck.

It was a clever mix of audience, demonstrating the strength and depth of the US Embassy in understanding Australia’s influencer networks. The crowd included students and scientists, academics, politicians, and business leaders at every level. The focus was on the future - innovation, youth and knowledge. Bruce Springsteen sang The Rising and the people were ready to be inspired.

Obama’s opening location gags were of a standard that would leave Adam Hills green with envy. But then he got to the serious issues, using the perfect frame of a David Malouf quote from his beautiful Boyer Lectures.

In that shrinking of distance that is characteristic of our contemporary world, even the Pacific, largest of oceans, has become a lake.

Malouf was talking about American identity and values at key historical moments of transition. Obama hit all the signature tenets of US public diplomacy and foreign policy - freedom of speech and internet freedom, democratic values, gender equality, minority rights, rights for LGBTI persons.

This was a crucial moment for global governance and for nowhere more than our region. In his first term, the President made a strategic decision to increase the United States’ focus on the Asia-Pacific region by “rebalancing” US engagements, activities, and resources toward our region (originally known as “the pivot to Asia”).

Obama referred back to his 2011 speech before the Commonwealth Parliament:

The United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future, by upholding core principles and in close partnership with our allies and friends. Our approach is grounded in the proposition that the United States is a historic Pacific power whose economy, strength, and interests are inextricably linked with Asia’s economic, security, and political order…and we are here to stay.

Visibly this meant the shift of military assets - by the end of this decade, a majority of US Navy and Air Force fleets will be based out of the Pacific. Beyond military strategy, US foreign policy and economic diplomacy needs to focus more keenly on the Asia-Pacific region.

It is this staying power that has been questioned, especially considering the result of the mid-terms. Obama tackled the unspoken question directly and with vigour, and sounded reasonably convincing even as troops are committed to Iraq once more and Washington’s gaze remains firmly on the Middle East and Ukraine. But he also said “the US is the only superpower” and that statement is open to interrogation with the rise of China. In global governance terms - this was the million dollar question:

And speaking of China, the US will continue to pursue a constructive relationship with China. By virtue of its size and its remarkable growth, China will inevitably play a critical role in the future of this region and the question is what kind of role will it play?

There was a harder edge to Obama’s words at this point of the speech.

“We are also encouraging China to adhere to the same rules as other nations, whether in trade or on the seas,” he said, leaning in to the students in the front row. “We do not benefit from a relationship with China or any other country in which we put our values and our ideals aside.”

Much of these tensions play out in the economic arena central to the G20 - Chinese currency issues, US Congress blocking IMF voting reforms, the US creating a regional trade deal that excludes China in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The TPP reference was probably the most controversial paragraph of the speech - with Twitter lighting up against the idea that the secretive TPP promotes transparency.

“We’re pushing new standards in this trade agreement requiring countries that participate to protect their workers better and to protect the environment better and protect intellectual property that unleashes innovation and meet baseline standards to ensure transparency and rule of law.”

But the tone in the climate section of the speech, the part that will lead the news bulletins and got the cheers, was so positive. “And if China and the US can agree on this, then the world can agree on this, we can get this done and it is necessary for us to get it done.” As a statement about global governance, it is a hopeful statement for a troubled region. Obama is still - less shiny, more rumpled - but still, all about hope.

Rory Medcalfe, my fellow UQ alumni, gave the speech a grading, writing in the Interpreter:

On Asia, this speech scores a credit – solid and respectable, but not spectacular. It won’t go down in history as the speech that categorically revitalized the rebalance. But at least it held the line.

We need to hear the bookend speech to the Australian Parliament by Chinese President Xi Jinping on Monday and calibrate the two statements of vision. But for me, I give the speech a solid ‘A’. This latest statement finally made the rebalance policy feel less a security framework and more a holistic shift of focus towards our region. How will these values be realised in our region - dignity, choice, gender equality and human rights? We need to build our interconnectedness around that lake.

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