President Barack Obama's Asian trip is being hailed as a diplomatic triumph, and to the extent that the three-stop tour delivered both concrete and symbolic accomplishments, that assessment is correct. In Hawaii, Obama strengthened the chances that the Trans-Pacific Partnership will become the cornerstone of future trade integration in the region. In Australia, he announced a small but symbolically resonant agreement to station U.S. Marines at an Australian base. And at the East Asia Summit in Indonesia, he very visibly underscored America's renewed commitment not just to Asia, but to the region's multilateral institutional architecture that the Bush administration had largely ignored.
For obvious reasons, the entire trip has been seen through the prism of the emerging rivalry between the U.S. and China for regional primacy. The TPP's technical requirements would for now exclude China; the Australian deployment would reinforce Guam in America's own "second island chain" forward base structure countering China's anti-access defense buildup, while providing a strategically flexible access point to both the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean; and America's inaugural attendance at the sixth EAS in Bali signaled the end of China's free hand in shaping Asian regional integration.
That view is not mistaken, and Stephen Walt explains why both Washington and Beijing have good reason to engage in this kind of competition for influence and advantage.