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ASEAN: On the Sino-US frontier

Updated On: Sep 26, 2010

The Obama administration will host a summit tomorrow with the leaders of the 10 member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. This should be welcome as a follow-up to an inaugural summit held in Singapore in November last year on the sidelines of the wider gathering for Apec (the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum).

The summit is a sign that the United States is pursuing its ambition to engage Asia in a more multilateral and equal way. In contrast, the previous administration focused on China and India, the Asian giants.

But there are current limitations that both sides must understand even if they cannot be openly discussed. First, US-Asean engagement is more symbol than substance. Much of the preparations for the summit have been about the logistics, and whether to hold the meeting in Washington or New York. The agenda identified at the first summit has not progressed significantly.

In part, this is because while US President Barack Obama has the spirit to engage Asean, the American body politic is distracted. Take the president's thrice-postponed visit to Indonesia, the largest country and epicentre of Asean. Each time, his visit was postponed because of domestic exigencies - jobs, health care and oil spill.

In part, it is also because Asean as a group has yet to agree on what it hopes the US engagement can bring to the region. One need is for security. It is a long-standing role played by the United States, and there is a re-emergent perception that it is still needed.

At the recent Asean Regional Forum, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton singled out Chinese declarations over disputed islets in the South China Sea. This was welcomed by many Southeast Asian states who also have claims and who fear Chinese projections of power.

Yet it would be unwise for Asean to be overly dependent on the United States. Asean must not give the impression that it seeks for the US to contain China. Over the past decade, China has engaged Asean consistently, and generally with benevolence, and Asean should wait to see how Beijing responds to concerns over this issue.

Siding with the US would be especially dangerous as differences brew between Washington and Beijing. There is tension over a range of issues from Tibet, democracy and North Korea to the value of the yuan and the complaints of iconic American companies such as Google and General Electric. Such conditions threaten to recreate the old Asian saying that when two buffalo fight, the grass dies. Asean cannot afford to choose between befriending either the US or China.

For, while there may be questions of security in the South China Sea, there are also hopes for sharing economic prosperity. China's still-rapid growth is a positive factor for Asean and much of Asia. It is moreover China - not the US - that has agreed to a free-trade agreement with Asean, due to begin this year, to bring the economies closer together.

Asean must therefore seek good ties with both. They must avoid "either-or" thinking, and instead pursue policies built on "and" to emphasise interdependence. So even as the US-Asean summit moves forward, Asean can keep an eye out for its summits with China later in the year, both bilaterally and in wider, intra-Asian gatherings.

Asean leaders were delighted to meet Obama at the first summit. They will still be happy to be hosted at this second gathering.

But the current mood of the meeting is not sustainable for the future. The Obama administration faces many pressing issues domestically and other urgent international concerns, including Afghanistan. For its part, Asean aims for economic community, and some member countries face internal challenges.

Beyond the upcoming summit, both the US and Asean must develop their underlying relationship to deepen and generate substance. Otherwise, the question of a third US-Asean summit next year may not be "when" or "where" but an existential "why bother".