Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The US, ASEAN and China: Emergence of new alignment

August 28th, 2010
Author: Joel Rathus, Adelaide University and Meiji University

In November of last year, President Barack Obama pledged that he would be a ‘Pacific president.’ While the audience in Suntory Hall may have wondered about what exactly that statement meant, few in attendance doubted the sincerity or conviction of the president. As relationships between the US, ASEAN and China have been re-drawn, especially since the latest series of ASEAN-hosted diplomatic meetings in Hanoi, the meaning of a Pacific president is starting to become clearer. Three sites of change in particular warrant special mention; the East Asia Summit, the South China Sea and the Korean Peninsula. In all three cases, the United States and ASEAN states are becoming closer, while China is finding itself distanced from the decision-making process.

The early 21st century phenomena of China-ASEAN relations being closer than the US-ASEAN partnership appears to be reversing itself.
This realignment was first seen in the United States’ advancing its claim for a seat at the East Asian Summit.
On July 21, the US received an expression of general support from the foreign ministers after the Informal Consultation Meeting and Singapore’s Foreign Minister George Yeo later indicated that ASEAN had already decided to include the US in the EAS. That US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton is determined to return to Vietnam in October for the EAS and Obama’s intention is to attend next year’s EAS in Indonesia, This suggests that the US is confident that its accession is assured over the medium term. As a part of this process, ASEAN ministers also welcomed the decision to include the US in the first ASEAN Defence Minister’s Plus Eight Dialogue Partners scheduled for October.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the only player which failed to greet increased US involvement in the region warmly was China. China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi was quoted as saying that China ‘took note with an open attitude’ of the ASEAN proposal for an expanded EAS and ‘look[ed] forward to consultations’ with ASEAN on the subject. But while China is dissatisfied with the direction the EAS is taking, this is a battle it already knows it has lost. As Wu Jianmin (a member of the Foreign Policy Advisory Group) observed last year, ‘We know that China could not stop the US if it really wants to join the EAS.’ Indeed, according to the declaration establishing the EAS, membership is determined by ASEAN alone – and while China is influential it simply cannot veto a proposal.

China has seen the US and ASEAN draw closer on issues of major interest, such as the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Clinton’s identification of this issue as a ‘pivot’ of regional security brings the United States back as a player after more than a decade of diplomatic passivity (to China’s notable discomfort).

The emerging US-ASEAN-China realignment can also be seen in Clinton’s proposal on July 23 (together with 12 other Asian nations, including host Vietnam) for a dispute resolution mechanism over territorial issues to be established. Such a mechanism would build on (or over) the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea signed by ASEAN and China. This Declaration can essentially be interpreted as a response to the 1992 Law on the Territorial Waters and Continuous Area and reflects an agreement to shelve the issue rather than resolve it – hence the lack of a dispute resolution mechanism. ASEAN efforts to move from ‘shelving’ to ‘resolving’ this issue have been systematically thwarted by China, and so it is unsurprising that China would again register dissatisfaction. China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi noted, ‘turning the bilateral issue into an international or multilateral one would only worsen the situation and add difficulties to resolving the issue.’ Perhaps Yang meant to add ‘for China’?

Lastly, this realignment can be seen in US-South Korea relations and posturing in the ASEAN Regional Forum over the sinking of the South Korean corvette, the Cheonan. Again, China and the US found themselves in opposite corners on this issue, China reportedly working to remove references to the sinking as a North Korean attack. This disagreement over wording caused the adoption of the Chairman’s statement to be delayed a day. Korea’s growing frustration with China’s role in diplomatically supporting the North has, as in the case of ASEAN, caused South Korea to look to its traditional security provider, the US. The recent war games off the Korean peninsula, while clearly focused on the North, have caused concerns in Beijing. Notwithstanding the repositioning of the nuclear powered aircraft carrier the George Washington on the East side of the peninsula, the US and Korea are willing to disregard China’s warnings. Intriguingly, Japanese officers are keenly observing the joint US-Korean exercises.

A realignment is steadily underway in East Asia. Increasingly, ASEAN (and Korea) are moving closer to the geographically distant US, while China is becoming more distant from its neighbours.

Joel Rathus is a recent PhD graduate (Adelaide) and a former Monbusho Scholar (Meiji). He blogs at Eris in Asia.

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