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ASEAN’s “disappointment” with the US and lingering issues with China

Updated On: Jul 24, 2007

Ongoing preparations for the ASEAN’s 40th anniversary summit are proceeding smoothly according to the incoming ASEAN Chair, Singapore.

Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo also pointed out that one of the key challenges for ASEAN in the years ahead was to make it and its work better known to the people within ASEAN especially the younger generation.

He reiterated the importance of ASEAN, saying, “Everyone has calculated, all ten countries, each is stronger better off, more secure with an integrated ASEAN than without an ASEAN. And it is for this reason out of national self interest that we have decided that we better pull resources and work towards a community. And to do that we need the software, we need the culture we need the to-ing and fro-ing and the comfort levels.”

However, all is not well in the upcoming ASEAN meetings as well as relations between China and one of the ASEAN members, Vietnam.

Despite agreeing to hold a ASEAN-United States (US) commemorative meeting in Singaporein September, US President Bush has rescheduled the meeting to a future date. This news was soon followed by reports that the Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would skip the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in Manila next month. Rice is expected to visit the Middle Eastsoon to work on a major U.S. peace initiative. Rice’s absence from the ARF would be the second time in three years.

The Straits Times editorial carried an article regretting both ‘no-show’ by the United States, saying that ASEAN has been “Let Down by a Partner.” To add to the series of bad news, US Trade Representative Susan Schwab pointed out that it is premature to discuss a FTA between the US and ASEAN. She said, “At some point, we could build towards an ASEAN-wide FTA. I don't think any of us has ruled that out, but at this stage of the game, it is premature talking about it.”  Instead she remarked that the US would build the economic relationship based on the US-ASEAN Trade Investment Framework Arrangement (TIFA).  ASEAN Secretary-General Ong Keng Yong when asked about the FTA after his speech at an event organised by the American Chamber of Commerce admitted that an ASEAN FTA with the US “may not happen anytime soon” because the USis distracted by various issues, particularly the situation in the Middle East.  He added that ASEAN is feeling “a bit restless” because protectionism is rearing its head in the US.

Former ASEAN Secretary-General Rodolfo Severino urged the media not to focus overly on the ‘superficial’ aspects. He reasoned that even if Rice did not urn up at the ARF, her deputy John Negroponte who has extensive experience in Asian affairs would. 

The United States’ apparent snub of ASEAN comes at a time when China is increasing its diplomatic initiatives in the region, not only at the ASEAN level, but also at the bilateral initiatives with the various ASEAN member states from Indonesia to Malaysia.  An announcement has just been made that Indonesia and China are exploring the possibility of  joint maritime operations, and recently China made a biggest single loan of US$800 million to the Malaysian government for the building of a second bridge in Penang.  Nonetheless, there continued to be lingering territorial issues that could cause tensions between Chinaand some of the ASEAN states.  The most recent was the flare-up in the Spratlys between China and Vietnam.

Over the past couple of months, Vietnamese fishermen have been captured or even killed by Chinese vessels. On 9 July, a group of Vietnamese fishing boats, 350km east of Ho Chi Minh City came under fire from Chinese naval vessels.  One boat sank and one fishermen died in the attack. In April, Chinese naval vessels captured 4 Vietnamese fishing boats for operating in the waters near the Spratlys. 41 fishermen were detained and were only released after fines were paid.

Professor Carlyle Thayer, a Vietnam expert at the Australian Defence Force Academy commented, “Vietnamese naval officers say that Chinese vessels have been adopting an intimidating posture for some time now… These Chinese actions are part of a general posture of staking out territorial claims and curtailing encroachments by Vietnamese fishermen.”

Some of the islands in the Spratlys in the South China Sea are claimed by Chinaand Vietnamas well as BruneiMalaysia and the Philippines.  (24 July 2007)

Sources:

A distracted US, so no FTA now (Today, 24 July 2007)

Look Past The Headlines To What Matters (Straits Times, 23 July 2007)

Schwab Sizes Up The Mood In America Towards Free Trade, And The Likelihood Of A US-Asean FTA (Straits Times, 23 July 2007)

US Downplays Trade Deal With ASEAN (Agence FrancePresse, 23 July 2007)

Preparations For ASEAN Summit In Singapore Making Progress: George Yeo(ChannelNewsAsia, 22 July 2007)

Letdown By A Partner(Straits Times, 21 July 2007)

No Let Up In Region's Importance(Today, 21 July 2007)

Interview-Bush No-Show Sends “Wrong Signal” To SE Asia(Reuters, 20 July 2007)

VietnamChina Clash Again Over Spratlys (Straits Times, 19 July 2007)