By Stuart Grudgings
KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 6 (Reuters) - When then U.S. Secretary ofState Hillary Clinton declared two years ago "We are back tostay" as a power in Asia, the most dramatic symbol of the policyshift was the planned deployment of 2,500 U.S. Marines innorthern 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 theAustralian defence ministry. Two hundred Marines just finishedtheir six-month 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 2017remains in place, but the lack of a U.S. presence there twoyears after the policy was announced underlines questions aboutWashington's commitment to the strategic "pivot" to Asia.
President Barack Obama's cancellation of a trip this week tofour Asian nations and two regional summits due to the U.S.government shutdown has raised further doubts over a policyaimed at re-invigorating U.S. military and economic influence inthe fast-growing region, while balancing a rising China.
While U.S. and Asian diplomats downplayed the impact ofObama's no-show, the image of a dysfunctional, distractedWashington adds to perceptions that China has in some waysoutflanked the U.S. pivot.
"It's symptomatic of the concern in Asia over thesustainability of the American commitment," said Carl Baker,director of the Pacific Forum at the Center for Strategic andInternational Studies in Hawaii.
As embarrassed U.S. officials announced the cancellationslast week, Chinese President Xi Jinping was in Indonesiaannouncing a raft of deals worth about $30 billion and then inMalaysia to announce a "comprehensive strategic partnership",including an upgrade in military ties.
He was en route to this week's Asia-Pacific EconomicCooperation (APEC) summit in Bali and the East Asia Summit inBrunei, where Obama will no longer be able to press hissignature trade pact or use personal diplomacy to support alliesconcerned at China's assertive maritime expansion.
Since 2011, China has consolidated its position as thelargest trade partner with most Asian countries and its directinvestments in the region are surging, albeit from a much lowerbase than Europe, Japan and the United States. Smaller countriessuch as Laos and Cambodia have been drawn so strongly intoChina's economic orbit that they have been called "clientstates" of Beijing, supporting its stance in regional disputes.
Leveraging its commercial ties, China is also expanding itsdiplomatic, political and military influence more broadly in theregion, though its efforts are handicapped by lingering maritimetensions with Japan, the Philippines and several other nations.
"For countries not closely allied with the U.S., Obama'sno-show will reinforce their policy of bandwagoning with China,"wrote Carl Thayer, emeritus professor at the Australian DefenceForce Academy in Canberra.
China, for instance, has been the biggest trade partner ofthe 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)since 2009, and its direct investments are surging, bringingwith them increased economic and diplomatic influence.
Chinese companies invested $4.42 billion in Southeast Asiain 2012, up 52 percent on the previous year, according toChinese state media citing the China-ASEAN Business Council.Investments into neighbouring Vietnam rocketed 147 percent.
China is demonstrating that it can deploy forces far beyondits coastal waters on patrols where they conduct complex battleexercises, according to Japanese and Western naval experts.Chinese shipyards are turning out new nuclear and conventionalsubmarines, destroyers, missile-armed patrol boats and surfaceships at a higher rate than any other country.
Operating from increasingly modern ports, including a newnaval base in the south of Hainan island, its warships arepatrolling more regularly, in bigger numbers and further fromthe mainland in what is the most sweeping shift in Asia'smaritime power balance since the demise of the Soviet navy.
China's military diplomacy with Southeast Asia is rapidlyevolving as it takes steps to promote what Beijing describes asits "peaceful rise".
The Chinese navy's hospital ship Peace Ark recently treatedhundreds of patients on a swing last month through Myanmar,Cambodia and Indonesia - its first such mission across SoutheastAsia. Its naval vessels returning from regular internationalanti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden have made calls inSoutheast Asian ports, including Singapore and Vietnam.
Still, analysts and diplomats say Beijing has a long way togo to catch up with not just the long-dominant United States,but other regional military powers such as Australia, Japan andRussia.
"China has come late to the party," said Richard Bitzinger,a military analyst at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School ofInternational Studies.
NOT A PATCHY PIVOT
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore, one ofWashington's most key allies in the region, said it wasdisappointing Obama would not be visiting Asia.
"Obviously we prefer a U.S. government which is working toone which is not. And we prefer a U.S. President who is able totravel to fulfill his international duties to one who ispreoccupied with his domestic preoccupations," Lee said afterarriving in Bali.
"It is a very great disappointment to us President Obama isunable to visit."
U.S. officials dismissed the notion that Obama's no-showwould imply any weakening of the U.S. commitment to the region.Just last week, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Secretaryof State John Kerry were in South Korea and Japan to reaffirmthe U.S. military commitment to the two key allies, and Kerrywill fill in for Obama at the two Asian summits.
"The bottom line is that the United States of America is notgoing to change one iota the fundamental direction of the policyunder this president," Kerry said on Saturday.
"I think everybody in the region understands. Everybody seesthis (the cancellation of the visit) as a moment in politics -an unfortunate moment - but they see it for what it is."
The United States has ramped up military funding andassistance to its close ally the Philippines, expanded militaryexercises with other nations and increased regional port visits.
From only 50 ship visits in 2010, nearly 90 ships havevisited the Philippines since January this year alone.
Washington has stationed surveillance planes there andpromised up to $30 million in support for building and operatingcoastal radar stations, all aimed at improving its ally'sability to counter China's naval encroachment in the disputedSouth China Sea that has alarmed several Asian nations.
But talks to establish a framework agreement on a regularrotational U.S. military presence in the Philippines have yet tobear fruit, and are unlikely to have been helped by Obama'scancellation of his planned visit to Manila.
For the Darwin deployment, a U.S. Senate Committee said inApril that it would cost $1.6 billion to build lodgings for theMarines, but the Australian government last month called foronly a first-stage A$12 million ($11.3 million) tender toconstruct new quarters at existing Australian barracks foraround 350 marines.
The economic leg of the pivot, negotiations for the U.S.-ledTrans-Pacific Partnership, has grown to 12 nations. But thecomplex three-year-old talks, which seek unprecedented access todomestic markets, are facing resistance in many countries andare unlikely to completed soon.
A final deal would have to be approved by the U.S. Congress,raising the prospect of domestic politics again obstructing Asiaties.
"Even if the administration could push through someagreement on the TPP, it's very unlikely there is going to belegislative success getting that through based on the acrimonythat exists," said the CSIS's Baker.
"...On the commercial side (of the pivot), there seems to bemore rhetoric than action."
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