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President Xi Jinping’s White House Visit: Implications for ASEAN

09 Aug President Xi Jinping’s White House Visit: Implications for ASEAN

On September 25, China’s President Xi Jinping will make his first state visit to the United States to meet with President Barack Obama. It is expected that they may discuss both issues of contention and cooperation in Sino-American relations. While ASEAN may not be mentioned, the issues that will likely arise during these talks could have implications for its members.


US policymakers are growing increasingly concerned about cyber-attacks that have stolen personal information and trade secrets. In June, hackers were able to infiltrate the servers of the US Office of Personal Management and compromise the personal information of four million former and current US federal workers.

Although China has continually denied any responsibility, many US officials, including the Director of National Intelligence, believe that Beijing is behind many of these attacks. In response, the Obama administration has been discussing the use of economic sanctions against Chinese companies who have profited off stolen US trade secrets, although they plan to hold off this discussion until after Xi’s visit.

The proposed US sanctions on Chinese companies could potentially weaken ASEAN markets since a large proportion of Southeast Asian exports to China are destined for the American market. Malaysian officials have recently estimated that around 60 per cent of their exports to China are sent to the G3 (US, Europe and Japan), while China’s re-export percentage of Indonesian exports to the G3 was believed to be around 20 to 30 per cent. Any slowing of Sino-American trade could potentially threaten ASEAN exports, as they play a role in the supply and value chain that connects China and the US.

Maritime Security

For the past few years, China has been increasing its military and commercial presence in the South China Sea, a territory in which China claims 90 per cent sovereignty. During China’s recent WWII commemoration military parade, its military unveiled a variety of new weapons that will enhance China’s power projection capabilities. This included a missile which  could pose a serious threat to the two US Navy carrier fleets stationed in Guam as it is reportedly able to destroy an aircraft carrier. China has also continually evaded requests to explain the purpose of its military buildup, adding to American suspicions of China’s ambitions in the region.

Several ASEAN members —Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam— also have claims that run contrary to China’s in the South China Sea. Since the announcement of the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” in 2012, the US has pursued more joint military exercises with China’s neighbours, including Indonesia and the Philippines. The US State Department’s decision in October 2014 to partially lift the US arms ban on Vietnam to “[allow] for the future transfer of maritime security-related [military hardware]” may also reflect US efforts to balance against their Chinese rival.

As US and China add more contours to ASEAN’s security landscape, it is crucial that the grouping maintains its neutrality vis-à-vis China-US relations. ASEAN’s perceived neutral position complemented with its non-threatening demeanour has allowed the organisation to cultivate trust and acceptance as a reputation as an impartial mediator from its Pacific neighbours. ASEAN cannot afford to choose between US or China, as the grouping’s reputation would be affected, undermining its role in the regional architecture.


Bilateral talks between Obama and Xi on these issues may facilitate further confidence-building in what has traditionally been a tenuous relationship. If both leaders are able to further stabilise US-China relations, it will have a profound impact on the economic and political stability in the Asia-Pacific region.


Hillary Clinton Is Angry With China Over Cyber Attacks [The Diplomat, 7 July 2015]

Obama and China: Trying to play well with a close frenemy [The Washington Post, 15 September 2015]

China’s refusal to explain purpose of military buildup fuels fear, suspicion
[The Business Times, 18 September 2015]

Photo Credit: US Embassy at The Hague via Flickr