Big power relations with ASEAN: China -1, United States -0?

Updated On: Aug 03, 2007

It is uncertain if all the hype about the waning US commitment to Asia, especially in light of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s recent cancellation of her attendance at the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) to travel to the Middle East, is true.

Such real or imagined snubs always arise whenever the world’s biggest superpower turns even an inch away from its Asia focus.

An anonymous New York-based ASEAN diplomat said, “It’s a unique opportunity for her to meet with her counterparts from so many countries under one roof, and I am surprised that she will miss this opportunity for the second time.” Surin Pitsuwan, ASEAN’s next secretary-general, criticized that the no-shows by President Bush and Rice with ASEAN officials this year sent out a “wrong signal”.

However, true to expected diplomatic niceties, all the officials were quick to assure that such fears were unfounded. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, who attended the ARF on behalf of Rice, stressed that the US “considers its relations with ASEAN as a critical component of its dealings with East Asiaas a whole. Our engagement in this part of the world is strong, and we are committed to deepening our ties even further in the time ahead”. Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo also “shrugged off suggestions that Rice’s absence was a slight to the region”.

Whatever it is, other regional powers are happy to overtake US’ influence in the ASEAN region especially as it evolves into an economic force rich with investment opportunities. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced Russia-ASEAN relations would soon go into a “more intense mode”. Key areas of cooperation mapped out include science and technology, energy, disaster prevention and anti-terrorism measures.

China too is happily increasing its relations with ASEAN. Huge projects have been in the media spotlight –the proposed ASEAN-China Information Superhighway, the upcoming the China-ASEAN Expo (CAE) –touted as Southeast Asia’s “gateway to China's huge market”, and China-ASEAN Free Trade Area forecast for 2010. All these powerful initiatives give Chinathe edge over the USin trade and economics in the ASEAN region. Bloomberg commented that at the rate China is making inroads to Southeast Asia, the US will soon be displaced.

However, all is not lost. The ASEAN leaders continue to be wary of China and are afraid that given China’s military and economic prowess, it will forcibly claim the Spratly Islands (in the South China Sea) as its own where there is an ongoing territorial dispute with some ASEAN states. It is believed that the “Spratly area holds oil and natural gas reserves of some 17.7 billion tons, far exceeding the 13 billion tons held by Kuwait, and making it the fourth largest reserve bed in the world”. Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo said as much. He announced, “These are challenging times that we live in, andU.S.leadership is critical. The ASEAN-U.S. relationship is a key pillar in the regional architecture. For ASEAN, this partnership is crucial for the balance of the evolving geopolitical structure.”

The US would do well to heed these hints and get its act together in Southeast Asia instead of misdirected policy obsessions with terrorism, the Middle Eastand trying to contain China. As it stands, new dates are being made for Bush to meet ASEAN leaders while the US has also proposed disaster relief exercises involving forces from the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) member countries to prepare for natural disasters in the region. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific, Ambassador Christopher Hill, said this “would facilitate cooperation and coordination of relief efforts in the event of natural disasters such as tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, typhoons, floods and mudslides” and if the proposal was accepted, the exercise could commence within 18 months.  (2 Aug 2007)


U.S.Aims for Deeper Ties with Asia(AP, 2 August 2007)

ASEAN Countries Fear U.S.is Losing Out to China in Southeast Asia(World Politics Review, 1 August 2007)

ASEAN says working on new dates for Bush meeting (Reuters, 1 August 2007)

China Racks Up Points as Bush Team Snubs Asia: William Pesek (Bloomberg, 1 August 2007)

Seeking to bolster clout, ASEAN talks with dialogue partners (AP, 1 August 2007)

U.S.To Propose Disaster Relief Exercises At ARF Meeting (Bernama, 31 July 2007)