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US 'return' to Asia poses challenge for Asean

Updated On: Mar 19, 2012

Obama's recent re-focus on Asia and ASEAN raises concern about American intentions to struggle for power with a rapidly growing China. How will power relations play out with renewed American attention in Asia and what role do other Asian nations play in the power game between the world's two giants?

SIIA Chairman Simon Tay examines the dynamics.

This commentary was first published in TODAY on March 19, 2012.

Much intent has followed the Obama administration's policy to return American focus to Asia.

Some Republicans say they never left, but many in Asia and especially South-east Asia feel a change in both perception and action.

Summitry with the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) is at a new high point, and the United States' presence is strongly felt on competing claims in the South China Sea.

Many welcome the renewed attention, but questions arise about American intentions and staying power vis-a-vis a rising China. In Beijing, reactions to the American "pivot" seem mixed to negative. 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 a similar logic apply to all South-east 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's 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 Clinton's visit, few noticed that Beijing concluded a strategic agreement just before she arrived.

Inescapable geography requires continuing cooperation with a giant and 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 South-east Asians.

Indonesia is larger and further away but its major exports of energy and other resources are sold to the Chinese market. Growth there drives Indonesia's economy. Enter President Barack Obama, leveraging his personal connection from early years living in Jakarta and recognising Indonesia's importance.

A comprehensive partnership between the two countries was launched in November 2010 and, one year later, a US$600 million (S$754 million) Millennium Challenge compact was added to help reduce poverty. Indonesia-US ties have broadened and deepened. Yet 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 United States is growing rapidly. In 2010, the two held their first Defence Policy Dialogue. Port calls by American military vessels are up and naval drills have been held - said to focus on maintenance and navigation.

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

In contrast, Sino-Vietnamese ties have been unsettled. China's Embassy in Hanoi has been subject to street protests - which many believe must have been allowed or even arranged by the authorities. Vietnam has also signed an agreement with India to explore oil in areas that are claimed by China.

These examples show Asean countries are by no means passive in ties with the US. The question is whether US 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 if 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 Asean members to harmonise their policies in dealing with the US with regards to China.

The American return to Asia does not necessarily lead to conflict with the place of China today and into the future. 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 avoid the perception 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. If Asean countries take a more coherent and balanced approach, they can increase hopes for continuing peace.