— The White House described President Barack Obama's recent Asia trip as an effort to bolster security and economic ties in the region.
But the U.S. president's vows of support for Japan and the Philippines led to widespread Chinese media coverage suggesting the trip was instead aimed at stalling China's rise, prompting some to call it Obama's "contain China tour."
Despite White House assurances to the contrary, some in Beijing are still asking why he did not stop in China.
According to Alejandro Reyes, visiting associate professor at the University of Hong Kong, there is little the president could have done to change that perception in China.
“From Beijing's perspective, I would think — and we have seen already the reaction has been negative — they see the president's visit underscoring their view that the pivot has to do with containing China," he said. "I don't think he could have changed that, to be realistic.”
Chinese commentaries on the president's trip have been quick to point out that Obama failed to negotiate a deal with Japan over a free-trade pact for Pacific nations and that he made little progress in inching the leaders of South Korea and Japan closer together.
An opinion piece in China Daily
, a state-run English language newspaper, accused the United States of ganging up with what it called "Washington's troublemaking allies" in the region. It also said the U.S. is presenting itself as a security threat to China.
China's Foreign Ministry spokesman told reporters on Wednesday that Beijing has good reason to ask Washington to explain its new security pact with the Philippines and why that does not harm regional stability.
During his trip, President Obama was careful to stress that the new agreement with the Philippines was mainly for military exercises related to and dealing with humanitarian relief.
Reyes says the search for missing Malaysian airlines flight MH370 and last year's devastating typhoon in the Philippines have highlighted the need for a strengthened U.S. presence in the region and stronger regional security architecture.
“It is not inconsistent to what the United States is doing in the region," he said. "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 at, say, NATO.”
At the same time, Reyes adds, the U.S. needs to pursue deeper military-to-military ties with China.
But some in the United States argue that too much focus is put on China and not enough on what benefits Washington's allies in the region are providing, says Clyde Prestowitz, a former U.S. trade negotiator and president of the Economic Strategy Institute.
“Is China a threat to Japan and Korea and the Philippines, and Malaysia? I think one could say no. But even if it were, is it a threat to the U.S.? The answer is definitely no. So if the answer is no, then why are we providing protection? What benefit does the U.S. derive?” he said.
Weighing the tangible benefits of the Asia pivot strategy could become even more important in the coming years. Washington is expected to further trim the U.S. defense budget at the same time that China’s military spending is projected to continue to rise.
When the Chinese government was asked what it thought of the fact that Obama did not visit China during this trip, the Foreign Ministry played down the significance, saying “regardless of whether he comes or not, we will still be here.”
China hosts the APEC Leaders Summit later this year in Beijing, an event Obama is expected to attend.