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What happened while Obama was in Asia? (+video)

President Obama's whirlwind Asia trip saw some surface compromise on disputed territorial issues, and the set up of a new Asian trade bloc.

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Many others, however, see it as an overstep, and US allies seem to be hoping for a firmer line from Obama.

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“Obama just talking about the sea disputes and asserting US interest in the dispute was good. But from the accounts I’m reading, he was too evenhanded,” says Walter Lohman, Asia Studies Center director at the Heritage Foundation. “You don’t have to take sides on the details of territorial disputes to attribute blame for the current problems. It's not fair, or ultimately conducive to peace, to treat everyone equally, when the one common element to all the disputes is unreasonable Chinese claims and aggressiveness,” says Mr. Lohman.

Obama's summit meetings came after visiting Thailand, a long-time US ally, as well as Myanmar, a former pariah now coming out of the cold but retaining close economic ties with China – a visit seen as both a reward for the military-dominated government's reforms as well as a step by the US in pushing back Chinese influence in the region.

More regional blocs?

In Thailand, Obama brought the government onboard the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a proposed free trade grouping taking in Australia, Brunei, Canada, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam, but one likely to be dominated by the US.

The TPP does not include China, prompting speculation that the body is part of US plans to sidestep Beijing, even though the two countries are economically-interdependent in many ways.

On Tuesday in Phnom Penh, ASEAN member-states as well as Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand said they would work to set up the world’s biggest free trade bloc by 2015, to be called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

Analysts say that the RCEP initiative may have stemmed from concerns about the leverage of the TPP. “As the US becomes more aggressive with TPP, ASEAN is afraid of being dominated by the superpower on the trade front,” says Professor Thitinan.

However, some say both groups could still help promote trade relations across the region and possibly lead to a single regional trade entity in future. “There won’t be two blocs. There is too much overlap among the parties,” says Walter Lohman.


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