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Unity will toughen Asean to withstand Sino-US rivalry

Updated On: Apr 03, 2012

This week's featured commentary highlights ASEAN's role in the struggle for power between China and USA. SIIA Chairman Simon Tay gives his perspectives and recommends a concerted, even-handed approach for the ASEAN when dealing with the two big powers.

This commentary first appeared on South China Morning Post on 3 April, 2012.

Much intent has followed the Obama administration’s policy to return US focus to Asia. Some Republicans say they never left. But many in Asia and especially Southeast Asia feel a change in both perception and action. Asean summits are at a high point, and the US presence is felt on competing claims in the South China Sea.

Many welcome the renewed attention, but questions arise about American intentions and staying power vis-à-vis a rising China. In Beijing, reactions to the US “pivot” seem mixed. Myanmar sets a stark example with dramatic political changes, opening to the West.

Some see America’s return, and Chinese retreat, and it is easy to imagine an emerging contention – if not in military terms, then in a competition for influence. Would similar logic apply to all Southeast Asia? Maybe. But countries in the region are not blank pages on which great powers can freely write.

Attitudes and actions of the countries in between can matter. Look again at Myanmar. Most believe China’s increasing dominance made Myanmar leaders uncomfortable. But the effort to bring in others does not necessarily exclude China.

While much attention was given to US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s visit, fewer noticed that Beijing concluded a strategic agreement just before she arrived. Inescapable geography requires continuing cooperation between a giant and a growing neighbour. So, rather than a switch to the West, what is developing may be better described as a shift in balance.

Similar considerations must be in the minds of other Southeast Asians. Indonesia’s major exports of energy and other resources are sold into the Chinese market. Growth there drives Indonesia’s economy.

Enter US President Barack Obama, leveraging his personal connection from early years living in Jakarta.

A comprehensive partnership between the two countries was launched in November 2010 and, one year later, a US$600 million Millennium Challenge Corporation compact was added to help reduce poverty. Indonesia-US ties have broadened and deepened, though military-to-military ties have been slower. Indonesia has been adroit in also managing relations with China to ensure continuing parity.

Policies in Vietnam seem less balanced. While some issues still linger from the war, security cooperation with the US is growing.

This comes amid escalating concerns about the South China Sea, over which Vietnam has in the past clashed with China and lost lives. Hanoi seems intent on bringing in America to counter potential Chinese aggression. On the economic front, Washington reciprocated by bringing Vietnam into the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership.

In contrast, Sino-Vietnamese ties have been unsettled. Vietnam has also signed an agreement with India to explore for oil in areas that are claimed by China.

These examples show that Asean nations are by no means passive in ties with the US. The question is whether their actions will help maintain peace in the region or turn provocative. It also remains to be seen whether each country will go its own way or whether Asean can find coherence and balance.

The group is diverse and has not instituted a common security or foreign policy, unlike the European Union. But Asean has banded together before to deal with conflicts, like the occupation of Cambodia and the Vietnam war.

It may now again be timely for members to harmonise their policies in dealing with the US vis-à-vis China.

The US return to Asia does not have to lead to conflict. But much depends not only on what these two giants do but how others in Asia respond. Asean can try to agree, at least, on what provocations to avoid.

Approaches to be even-handed and avoiding perceptions of siding with one or the other can also be shared.
This will not be easy but is key to preserving Asean unity as US-China competition heats up.