RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Steve is in Nashville this morning, visiting member station WPLN. I'm Renee Montagne. President Obama's travels through the Pacific Rim this week have taken him to the Indonesian resort island of Bali. His main message to Asian leaders is that as the U.S. winds down its commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, it will be shifting its attention to Asia, where there's both economic opportunity and potential security challenges. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Bali that Asian leaders are divided about what to make of the U.S. shift. Some are worried about getting caught in a conflict between the major powers.
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ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: The sound of Balinese gamelans wafts through a hotel lobby teeming with diplomats, bodyguards and journalists. President Obama announced today that in a diplomatic breakthrough, he'll send Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Myanmar next month. And U.S. efforts to ramp up engagement with China's neighbors have loomed over the proceedings here. This week, the U.S. also announced efforts to help beef up the tiny navy of the Philippines. That country is one of five embroiled in a territorial dispute with China over the South China Sea.
Philippine presidential spokesman Ricky Carandang says his country needs a stronger military, but not just because of China.
RICKY CARANDANG: When you go to the negotiating table with someone, you have to have at least the minimum deterrent capability. We need to build up our naval and military capabilities, not just because of this issue.
KUHN: China has so far reacted mildly to the U.S.'s strategic shift. Many Chinese believe that the U.S. has tried to contain and encircle it for years, and previous American presidents have also pledged to step up engagement in Asia, so this is nothing new.
Yuan Peng is an America expert at a government think tank in Beijing. He says the U.S. shift will merely aggravate China's tensions with its neighbors.
YUAN PENG: (Foreign language spoken)
KUHN: The U.S. should first be considering how to deal with the region's major power, China, he says, rather than thinking how to use smaller countries to contain and stifle it. That Cold War mentality is not how the 21st century's major powers should interact.
Most of China's neighbors try to balance relations between the region's main economic power, China, and the dominant military force, the U.S. Asian nations are divided over whether an increased U.S. presence in the region will bring stability or conflict.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa says Asia must keep from becoming an arena for competition among the big powers.
MARTY NATALEGAWA: It is not possible to wish away the influence of the bigger countries. But we can make a code of conduct, within which countries carry on their activities in our region.
KUHN: But among U.S. and Chinese policymakers, there's a strong current of realpolitik thinking, which you could sum up in the Chinese folk saying: One mountain isn't big enough for two tigers.
University of Chicago political scientist John Mearsheimer views the U.S.'s strategic pivot towards Asia as an ominous move in a zero-sum contest between two hegemonic powers.
JOHN MEARSHEIMER: I think it's a major step forward in implementing a policy of containment. President Obama has said on this trip that the notion that we fear China is wrong. I think that's, obviously, not true. We fear China. And virtually all of China's neighbors in Asia fear it.
KUHN: Our greatest unspoken fear, says Mearsheimer, is that China will eventually become powerful enough to station military forces in our backyard, much as the U.S. stations troops on China's doorstep in Japan and South Korea.
MEARSHEIMER: What we prefer is for China to be pinned down in Asia, worrying about the balance of power in its neighborhood. We do not want China to be free to roam. And of course, this is the principal reason that the United States will go to great lengths to make sure that China does not dominate Asia the way we dominate the Western Hemisphere.
KUHN: He says the U.S. and China both feel they have little choice but to defend themselves against each other. But their defensive actions appear to the other side as hostile intent, leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy and an escalation of conflict. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Bali. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.