Those who suggested that the “pivot” by the United States towards Asia was not real should think again after President Barack Obama arrived in the Filipino capital Manila for the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit bearing gifts yesterday.

Some reports place promises of US military aid to the Philippines and other nations in the region at hundreds of millions of dollars. Of course, in terms of the money spent on arms in the region in recent years, that’s a mere bagatelle.

The funds are to help the growing group of US defence allies in the region to muscle up against China, whose aggressive moves in the South and East China Seas over the past half-decade or so have begun to trigger a predictable response.

Yes, ladies and gents, while you weren’t watching, an arms race has exploded (excuse the pun) across the Asia-Pacific.

In the classic language of an aggressor, China continued to step up its rhetoric ahead of the APEC summit.

“The Chinese government has the right and the ability to recover the islands and reefs illegally occupied by neighbouring countries,” Liu Zhenmin, one of China’s bevy of vice foreign ministers, said yesterday. “But we haven’t done this. We have maintained great restraint with the aim to preserve peace and stability in the South China Sea.”

What planet are the deluded Communist Party leaders living on with the specious poppycock that their aggression is a bid for “peace and stability”?

Still, it’s worth noting we’re a long way from another cold war, with US and China navy exchanges occurring as a backdrop to the APEC summit and US blandishments.

Australia’s armed forces have, in recent years, at least tended to have the appearance of having better relations with China than the politicians. (Let’s not forget Julie Bishop’s public dressing down in Beijing by the Chinese foreign minister not so long ago).

As well as his chequebook and position as commander-in-chief of the US military, Obama will be wielding considerable charm and persuasion in a series of bilateral meetings, whose select participants are telling.

Naturally enough Australia is on the list, and it will be the first meeting between Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and the leader of the free world.

Turnbull has drawn a very clear, tough picture of his attitude to China’s island building efforts in the South China Sea.

The extent of the US effort at outreach is palpable in the inclusion of regional minnow Laos in the half-dozen nations granted bilateral talks at APEC.

The US has ratcheted up its aid efforts to the impoverished landlocked country, and next year Obama will be the first US president to set foot on its territory.

For Obama this week will be a mighty pivot in geography and focus this week coming so soon after the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris at the weekend, but while China will be a focus of many of his meetings, the response to the Islamic State will certainly be on the agenda of his meeting with Turnbull and others.

“We will speak to President Obama about the negotiations that are underway between US, Russia and others to find a way to end the Syrian conflict,” Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said, and in the process slapped down her former leader, Tony Abbott, who has used the opportunity of Turnbull’s absence to engage in sniping and undermining.

“Australia does not act unilaterally, we are part of the US-led coalition,” Bishop noted, pointedly. “It has to be a co-ordinated measures, calculated effort. Former prime minister Tony Abbott appreciates that.” Perhaps.

The extent of Australia’s commitment to the anti-China cause — let’s be frank and call it what it is — will be made even clearer next Monday when Julie Bishop and Defence Minister Marise Payne meet their Japanese counterparts.

Australia’s ability to come to terms with Japan —  a country that attempted to invade it during World War II and whose soldiers visited upon Australian service men and women often unbearable cruelty — is an object lesson to China.

The sooner China makes an effort to get over itself on this and move into the 21st century — if it is really serious about peace and stability — the better off everyone in the region will be.

But hope, as it is said, would be a fine thing.

Peter Fray

Save 50% on a year of Crikey and The Atlantic.

The US election is in a little over a month. It seems that there’s a ridiculous twist in the story, almost every day.

Luckily for new Crikey subscribers, we’ve teamed up with one of America’s best publications, The Atlantic for the election race. Subscribe now to make sense of it all, and you’ll get a year of Crikey (usually $199) and a year’s digital subscription to The Atlantic (usually $70AUD), BOTH for just $129.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW