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By Global Public Square staff
Last week’s Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit saw the presidents of China, Mexico, Russia and many others in Bali, Indonesia. In the video, tucked away on the far right, you see John Kerry, the U.S. Secretary of State. And where is President Obama? Well, he was stuck in Washington, of course, dealing with the government shutdown and threats of default. Obama missed not only APEC, but also ASEAN, the Association of South East Asian Nations summit, as well as planned visits to Malaysia and the Philippines.
For Asians, the symbolism was clear. The United States was struggling to get its house in order. And perhaps to highlight a contrast, China was present in full force, putting on an exhibition of power and diplomacy. President Xi Jinping attended the APEC meeting and then made special trips to Malaysia and Indonesia. The Premier, Li Keqiang, attended the ASEAN meeting and traveled to Thailand.
Consider the deals that were struck last week. President Xi promised to triple his country's trade with Malaysia within four years. In Indonesia, he promised tens of billions of dollars in investment. And he courted Australia's new prime minister, Tony Abbott, to whom he promised more trade and more cooperation in technology and energy.
And it’s not just trade. A new report from the non-profit Rand Corporation outlines the dramatic escalation of China's foreign aid. In 2001, Beijing spent $1.7 billion dollars on foreign aid. By 2009, it was spending nearly $125 billion. In 2010, the figure rose to $169 billion, by 2011 it reached $189 billion dollars – about 3 percent of China's GDP – and it is still going up.
The money trail points to a country flush with cash, looking to snap up resources and opportunities around the world.
What has been less clear in the last two years is the effectiveness of Beijing's foreign policy. As the Chinese scholar Zheng Wang points out, not a single member of China's seven-member Standing Committee – the pinnacle of power in Beijing – is a foreign policy expert. The country’s foreign minister doesn't make it into Beijing’s 25-person Politburo.
And China has made several missteps in the past three years. It escalated territorial disputes with Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam. It was seen as a bully flexing its muscles with its neighbors. These signals, mostly rhetoric, were a contradiction not only of China's stated policy of a “peaceful rise,” but also of its actual track record. Remember: China has actually not been involved in a single war since 1979, when it had a skirmish with Vietnam. But the moves worried its neighbors enough that they publicly asked for greater American involvement in Asia.
This past week, China's leaders were at pains to display a softer face. They described China as a gentle giant, not an aggressor. Meanwhile, they put the focus back on the economy and building business ties with their Asian neighbors. As Li put it last week, “We should make the pie bigger, and share this pie with our people.” It's a smart, win-win move. China's neighbors may worry about a big, powerful giant – but they still want to trade with it.
President Obama's pivot to Asia has been one of his wisest foreign policy moves, well-conceived and well executed. But it, too, has now been weakened, one more consequence of the vicious partisanship in Washington.
So you see a China that learns from its mistakes, smartens up, and moves ahead. Washington on the other hand, keeps returning to deadlock, repeats its most stupid moves, and continues to govern from crisis to crisis. It is a sad contrast that Asia and the world can see.