ASEAN and the USA: a good week for Obama?

Will China counter ASEAN meeting with a charm offensive or a show of strength?

Simon Reich

International relations, National security | Asia, Southeast Asia, The World

24 February 2016

The recent meeting between President Obama and the ASEAN nations highlighted the strategic importance of the region to the USA, writes Simon Reich.

I don’t believe in conspiracy theories. But it would be hard to ignore the fact that the leaders of 10 South East Asian leaders met in California recently, and the next day news stories were published about China installing surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island in the Paracel Chain, which is claimed both by Taiwan and Vietnam.

For the Americans, the meeting may have been all about a pull factor – consolidating warm relations between these countries and the United States. The news, however, was clearly a push factor – timed to send them rushing away from China and into America’s waiting arms.

There has, of course, been a complex game between China and the US dating from, at least, Obama’s rebalancing to Asia in 2011. Both sides use a mixture of sticks and carrots in somewhat equal measure.

The Chinese talk of a path of peaceful development, but they then proclaim that land and sea claims in the East and South China Seas are consistent with this peaceful path. The same is true of the Chinese declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone as a sovereign entitlement. So, from the American perspective, it only remains a peaceful path if nobody puts up too much of a fight.

The claims of Chinese cyber attacks on the American government and its corporations have added fuel to fire, and been only partially addressed. At the same time, the Chinese have launched the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the Silk Road Fund and the BRICs bank – luring many of America’s closest allies and partners into participating with the promise of contracts in what would be the greatest set of infrastructure projects in history. Trade between the two countries, of course, remains robust, even as China’s economy slows.

The US, in the same vein, has pursued an ambivalent path. The establishment of new bases in the Pacific, and the renewal of old agreements, has prompted accusations from the Chinese that amount to the claim that American is pursuing an encirclement strategy in the region. Add the fact that China has been excluded from the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, which can understandably be interpreted by the Chinese as a hostile act.

Yet the Obama administration has consistently softened its rhetoric by scheduling routine meetings with the Chinese and using the language of engagement. The US even invited the Chinese to take part in the annual RIMPAC (Rim of the Pacific Exercise) multilateral military exercises in the Pacific – an event in which the Chinese participated while simultaneously spying on those exercises. Notably, the Americans said little publicly about the spying before expressing amusement, focusing instead on China’s formal participation.

Against this backdrop, the countries of ASEAN have to navigate a difficult path. They want to benefit from American trade and security without offending their Chinese neighbours. The group of 10 that met with Obama are a varied crew. They range from the small and poor (such as Laos) to the dynamic (Singapore) and the strategically important (Indonesia). But collectively they comprise a population of more than 620 million and an economy of around US$2.4 trillion, cumulatively representing the world’s seventh-largest economy, and the United States’ fourth-largest trading partner.

To the US they represent a potentially vital buffer against any Chinese ambitions for regional expansion, if not regional dominance.

Obama’s comments at the meeting’s conclusion made the significance of this “strategic” partnership with ASEAN clear. Indeed, there is arguably no other place in the world where the United State’s economic and security interests so coincide.

America’s largest trading partners all face persistent or mounting problems. Europe’s growth remains sluggish. Latin America’s largest trading partners are in crisis. And, from a strategic perspective, the less it has to rely on its asymmetric economic relationship with China the better off it will be. No surprise then that Obama said “I affirmed our strong support for the ASEAN Community and pledged that the United States will continue to be a partner in ASEAN’s efforts to integrate economies and reduce barriers to trade and investment.”

The president, with only an uncharacteristic veneer of diplomacy, spoke of increasing “our security cooperation to meet shared challenges.” He suggested the group had agreed on a number of “key principles” that will increase trade, increase security in the region and “expand the rule of law and universal human rights.”

The target of this was evident – given that Chinese territorial claims had been a central component of the agenda. As Obama noted, “We discussed the need for tangible steps in the South China Sea to lower tensions, including a halt to further reclamation, new construction and militarization of disputed areas.  Freedom of navigation must be upheld and lawful commerce should not be impeded.” And to emphasise the point he added that “the United States will continue to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, and we will support the right of all countries to do the same.  We will continue to help our allies and partners strengthen their maritime capabilities.”

Obama also announced that he would visit Vietnam, a remarkable turnaround for older Americans who lived through the Vietnam War. But it may be less surprising given Vietnam’s symbolic significance. It is arguably the country that is the most vulnerable to any Chinese aggression. Visiting there sends a clear message to the Chinese: America is committed to support those on your borders.

All this discussion is set against the backdrop of a president with deep personal roots in the region. His commitment may be built on strategic calculations, but it is reinforced by emotional ties.

I suspect that there are very few good weeks when you are America’s president. The problems arrive too thick and fast to dwell on any successes. But I imagine Obama’s staff will count this among their more satisfying episodes in their elaborate kabuki with the Chinese.

The question is whether the Chinese will counter with a charm offensive or a show of strength to the members of ASEAN. The revelation that they had installed missiles, however much they tried to dismiss the decision as unimportant, certainly made it look like the latter.

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Reich, S. (2016). ASEAN and the USA: a good week for Obama? - Policy Forum. [online] Policy Forum. Available at: http://www.policyforum.net/asean-and-the-usa-a-good-week-for-obama/ 

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