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As Obamas Asia pivot falters, China steps into the gap

KUALA LUMPUR: When then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared two years ago We are back to stay as a power in Asia, the most dramatic symbol of the policy shift was the planned deployment of 2,500 U.S. Marines in northern Australia, primed to respond to any regional conflict. At this point in time, however, there is not a single U.S. Marine in the tropical northern city of Darwin, according to the Australian defence ministry. Two hundred Marines just finished their sixmonth tour and will not be replaced until next year, when 1,150 Marines are due to arrive. The original goal of stationing 2,500 Marines there by 2017 remains in place, but the lack of a U.S. presence there two years after the policy was announced underlines questions about Washingtons commitment to the strategic pivot to Asia. President Barack Obamas cancellation of a trip this week to four Asian nations and two regional summits due to the U.S. government shutdown has raised further doubts over a policy aimed at re-invigorating U.S. military and economic influence in the fast-growing region, while balancing a rising China. While U.S. and Asian diplomats downplayed the impact of Obamas noshow, the image of a dysfunctional, distracted Washington adds to perceptions that China has in some ways outflanked the U.S. pivot. Its symptomatic of the concern in Asia over the sustainability of the American commitment, said Carl Baker, director of the Pacific Forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Hawaii. As embarrassed U.S. officials announced the

cancellations last week, Chinese President Xi Jinping was in Indonesia announcing a raft of deals worth about $30 billion and then in Malaysia to announce a comprehensive strategic partnership, including an upgrade in military ties. He was en route to this weeks Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Bali and the East Asia Summit in Brunei, where Obama will no longer be able to press his signature trade pact or use personal diplomacy to support allies concerned at Chinas assertive maritime expansion. Since 2011, China has consolidated its position as the largest trade partner with most Asian countries and its direct investments in the region are surging, albeit from a much lower base than Europe, Japan and the United States. Smaller countries such as Laos and Cambodia have been drawn so strongly into Chinas economic orbit that they have been called client states of Beijing, supporting its stance in regional disputes. Leveraging its commercial ties, China is also expanding its diplomatic, political and military influence more broadly in the region, though its efforts are handicapped by lingering maritime tensions with Japan, the Philippines and several other nations. For countries not closely allied with the U.S., Obamas no-show will reinforce their policy of bandwagoning with China, wrote Carl Thayer, emeritus professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra. China, for instance, has been the biggest trade partner of the 10member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) since 2009, and its direct investments are surging, bringing with them increased economic and diplomatic influence. Chinese companies invested $4.42 billion in Southeast Asia in 2012, up 52 percent on the previous year, according to Chinese state media citing the China-ASEAN Business Council. Investments into neighbouring Vietnam rocketed 147 percent. China is demonstrating that it can deploy forces far beyond its

coastal waters on patrols where they conduct complex battle exercises, according to Japanese and Western naval experts. Chinese shipyards are turning out new nuclear and conventional submarines, destroyers, missile-armed patrol boats and surface ships at a higher rate than any other country. reuters