US courtship of ASEAN: Strategic moves to counter rival suitor China?

Updated On: May 26, 2006

Often accused of benign neglect of the region, the US appeared to have taken heed of the rumblings in the region and stepped up efforts to “woo” ASEAN. 

Assistant Secretary of State, Christopher Hill, leading the delegation to the 19th ASEAN-US Dialogue on 23 May covered considerable ground in outlining the firmest US stance on the region’s affairs.  ASEAN has felt rebuffed last July when Condoleezza Rice became the first American Secretary of State not to attend the Asean Regional Forum since the latter’s inception in 1994.

The new US hegemonic courtship of Asean, arguably to deflect moves by rival suitor, China, can be sensed from a much more pronounced US foreign policy towards Southeast Asia following Condi Rice visit to the region (Japan and Australia) to put together a “trilateral congregation” aimed at containing China.

Just before the 19th ASEAN-US dialogue, the US Pacific Naval Fleet Commander, Admiral Gary Roughead’s visited the region last week and signalled clear USdevotion of its physical presence and attention to the region through plans – first mooted in 2004 – to increase patrols in Asian waters. But Roughead also soothed fears of US encroachment by stating its position of non-interference in the sovereignty of the littoral states and their rights and jurisdiction within the Straits of Malacca. Nevertheless, such a move may also be interpreted as an opportune stab at China’s recent energy procurement rush, by obfuscating its “Malacca dilemma”, of which a China Youth Daily tellingly reported on June 15, 2004 that “It is no exaggeration to say that whoever controls the Strait of Malacca will also have a stranglehold on the energy route of China.”

The diplomatic maneuverings behind the ASEAN-US dialogue revealed much commitment in the proposed marriage that would soon be consummated in the signing of the Asean-US Enhanced Partnership at Asean’s Post Ministerial Conference Session with the US in Kuala Lumpur in July. Christopher Hill noted in particular, future cooperation between Asean and the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec), a future free trade agreement out of the Asean-US Trade and Investment Agreement (TIFA), and the potential of the Asean Regional Forum in playing a supportive role to ease the tensions from North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme. The following day of the dialogue also saw the US updating a decades-old (since 1951) treaty with the Philippines with the signing of a new security pact to address the emerging threats such as piracy, terrorism, transnational crime and bird flu.

A more sombre note undergirds the sweet promises as Christopher Hill also revealed an unequivocal US stand of wanting regional institutions like the East Asia Summit (EAS) to complement and not compete with APEC. The EAS was first held in Kuala Lumpur last December where Asean held a summit with leaders fromChinaKoreaJapanIndiaAustralia and New Zealand without the US. Additionally, the US remains lukewarm to Asean’s call for it to accede to the non-aggression pact, the Treaty of Amity and Co-operation in Southeast Asia (TAC).

The real intentions behind US urgent courtship of Asean can be further witnessed in two recent instances as well. The first comes from US treatment of the current international pressure on Myanmar. Christopher Hill’s open compliments of Asean’s efforts for pressing Myanmar for reform during the opening day of the Dialogue should be contrasted with his criticism of China’s economic dealings with Myanmar the following day at a speech delivered at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore. Such a scenario may perhaps exemplify the current sentiment and tone of which the US intends to pursue its foreign policy in Asia in future.

The second instance comes from a May 23 Pentagon report fueling US fear of China’s military threat as it extends its military reach with recent long-range aircraft and weapons buildup. The report builds on Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s visit to China late last year, urging the Chinese government to be more transparent about its nuclear development intentions.

How China responds to the US in Southeast Asia and what impact these moves by US will have on China’s policy towards ASEAN, the current prized pawn inAsia, remains to be seen.


US Wants East Asia Summit To Complement, Not Rival Others (Bernama, 23 May 2006)

US official applauds Asean for pressuring Myanmar (AFP/The Straits Times, 23 May 2006)

Beijing should work for change in MyanmarUS official (The Straits Times, 23 May 2006)

US sees China's 'extending military reach' as threat (The Straits Times, 24 May 2006)

US lukewarm on Asean treaty (Bangkok Post, 24 May 2006)

US and Philippines to sign new security pact (Reuters/The Straits Times, 24 May 2006)

Military threat from China is expanding: Pentagon (AP/The Straits Times, 25 May 2006)