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Sieren's China: Rising pressure

After the terrorist attacks in Paris, economic issues are no longer in the forefront at the two Asian summits. But the dispute over the South China Sea is still high on the agenda, says DW columnist Frank Sieren.

Immediately after the G20 Summit in the Turkish city of Antalya, Chinese President Xi Jinping (above) and his US counterpart Barack Obama flew to the Philippine capital of Manila for a two-day meeting of the 21 members of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum. Afterwards, Obama goes on to Kuala Lumpur for a US-ASEAN summit, while Xi will be represented by his prime minister Li Keqiang. Russian President Vladimir Putin took his leave after the G20 summit. He has enough to do with Syria and is also sending his prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, to APEC.

In recent years, such summits in Asia have largely been about economic issues like free trade zones and trade partnerships, as well as the conflict in the South China Sea. This year, the focus is on the threat of terrorism. Even at the G20, there was no time for animosity between presidents: Obama and Putin were suddenly sitting together in club chairs, holding their first private talk since Russian attacks on Syria began - as if the West's sanctions against Russia never existed. This week, Beijing offered to help in the fight against IS. It's also in China's interest that militant groups on its borders in the western region of Xinjiang are weakened.

Islamist terrorism in Asia

Southeast Asia also faces Islamist terrorism - the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia have suffered attacks by Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah. Attacks and kidnappings are commonplace in the southern Philippines. Extremists have killed people in Thailand's Muslim south to weaken the Thai government through fear and terror. There have been attacks against tourists in Indonesia, which boasts the largest Muslim population in the world. Earlier this week, five men suspected of planning an attack on the ASEAN summit at the end of the week, were arrested in Malaysia.

The terrorist attacks in Paris and in Asia will not prevent the US president from putting pressure on Beijing with regard to the dispute over the South China Sea. On Tuesday, Obama visited the Philippine Navy flagship, in a clear signal to Beijing. China for its part would prefer not to talk about the conflicting sovereignty claims in the waters of the South China Sea. It tried to keep the dispute off the agenda ahead of the summit, but to no avail as Obama will not allow the dispute to be ignored.

The dispute is symbolic of the US-China power dynamic in the region. In recent weeks, Washington has authorized naval patrols in waters near the Spratly Islands, which China has been expanding artificially. To the major annoyance of Beijing, the US military has not only entered the 12-mile nautical zone that China lays claim to, but also airspace. Obama has now announced that the US will invest $250 million to boost the Philippine Navy and that of other allies in the region to promote "maritime security".

Asia won't allow itself to be pocketed by China

Xi has tried to exert influence on the power dynamic by investing in China's neighbors. Billions have already been spent on infrastructure and other projects. Some states have been hesitant to cooperate with the US, but 12 APEC members have signed the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement that China is not allowed to be part of. It eliminates 18,000 taxes that were imposed on US exports. In Asia, it's obviously not so easy for Obama to be pragmatic when it comes to Beijing. Whereas Putin is fortunate in that he is currently needed much more urgently by Obama than by Xi. Putin has entered the Syria game, while China remains hesitant.

Our correspondent Frank Sieren is one of the leading German China experts. He has lived in Beijing for over 20 years.

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