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Q&A: China Figures Prominently in Obama Asia Meetings

U.S. President Barack Obama waves to the media upon arrival Monday, April 28, 2014 at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila, Philippines.
U.S. President Barack Obama waves to the media upon arrival Monday, April 28, 2014 at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila, Philippines.
U.S. President Barack Obama wrapped up visits to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines this week as part of a trip aimed at reassuring Asian allies of the United States' commitment to the region.  Although Beijing was not on the itinerary, China figured prominently in the meetings, with its territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas. VOA spoke about the trip with Alejandro Reyes, visiting associate professor at the University of Hong Kong's department of Politics and Public Administration.
(Q) What is your overall take on the visit?

(A) “In some ways President Obama achieved what he set out to do which was in some ways to make up for his absence at the APEC meeting last year and to reassert, if you will, that pivot to Asia the rebalancing. And I think in his stops, in Tokyo, in Seoul, in Kuala Lumpur and Manila, he did very well to achieve that. Both on the military security side and on the trade side. Now, whether in those areas things are going to move forward is another question but I think he brought that message across.”

(Q) What was China's reaction to the trip?

(A) “I think he [Obama] was very careful every time he spoke, to say that he was not interested in containing China, the United States is interested in a rising China and it was in the interests of the United States that China grows, the economy expands. But of course from the Beijing perspective, I would think, and we have seen already the reaction has been negative and that they see the President's visit as underscoring their view that the pivot has to do with containing China, and I don't think he could have changed that.
(Q) Many in China believe the United States is trying to contain China, and that idea has gained momentum after Obama announced the pivot. Do you think the Obama's administration will be able to change that?   

(A) “I think from the Chinese perspective, there will always be that, there will always be that interpretation [of containment], and I don't think the United States or anybody can do anything about that superficial impression that might be delivered in rhetoric. But I think if we look below the surface I don't think that it's all, things are all that difficult. “
(Q) In the Philippines, Obama signed the Enhance Defense Cooperation Agreement, which gives the United States more access to military bases in the country. What is the significance of the pact and how does it play into regional disputes?

(A) “The president was very careful to stress that this [Agreement with the Philippines on more access to military bases] was really manly for military exercise particularly related to dealing with humanitarian relief and such operation and general security around the region, and this was not meant as a forward strategy to contain China and deal with any particular developments related to the South China Sea. “  

(Q) Why did the United States push for the agreement now?

(A) “It is not inconsistent to what the United States are doing in the region, this idea that military to military ties are essential, you need to develop them in a region that really has no security architecture comparable to what you have say at NATO.”
(Q) Do you think there is a risk that by signing military pacts with countries like the Philippines, the United States could be in fact - like China has stated - creating more frictions in the region?

(A) “You can't avoid those who will say it's all about forward strategy to try and contain China, but the United States has similar agreements with access to facilities in Singapore, the United States has similar agreement with Australia, the United States is building more and more military to military relations with Vietnam. There will be those who say that if the United States does not do this it's irresponsible, so I think we have to be somewhat more balanced about it. “  
(Q) What can the United States do to change this perception of containment?

(A) “I think that it's important that the United States then pursue deeper military to military relations with China, because I think that's essential to show that their intention is to strengthen the regional security architecture and not really to contain China.”

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