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US, China & Developments in Southeast Asia

‘The US is back in Asia’, is now a new theme dominating Washington’s external strategy. The US President Obama himself confirmed it by announcing in his speech to Australia’s Parliament on 17 November 2011 that “there should not be any doubt: in the Asia-Pacific in the 21st century, the US is all in and that the decision is deliberate and strategic”. American officials, on their part, are at the same time describing the US return to Asia as new “pivot” in the country’s foreign policy, while conveying a sense that the development has been a sequel to the success of Washington in coming out of the Iraq imbroglio and setting up a deadline to disentangle itself from Afghanistan. There have been five firm indicators to Washington’s shift of strategic focus from the Middle East to East Asia. Firstly, in the economic front, the US is promoting a concept of Trans- Pacific Partnership(TPP), which does not include China; Beijing is suspicious of TPP aims as those directed at diluting the importance of ASEAN plus 3 mechanism being supported by the PRC as the main driving force for regional integration. Secondly, the US participated for the first time in the East Asia Summit at Bali with an implied stand on managing China’s rise. Third comes the holding of the first US-India-Japan trilateral dialogue at Washington on 19 December 2011, about which the Chinese official media have already expressed wariness. Fourthly, the US and Australia agreed over rotation of US troops through a base in Darwin in Northern Australia, during President Obama’s Asia tour in November 2011 which appeared as yet another sore point for Beijing. Lastly, the US formulated its new post-Iraq and post-Afghanistan defence strategy called “Sustaining US Global Leadership Priorities for 21st Century Defence” (Washington, 5 January 2012). Making a special mention of the PRC, it said that “over long term, China’s emergence as a regional power will have the potentials to affect the US economy and security in a variety of ways. China’s military power needs greater clarity”. The strategy also called for “US long term strategic partnership with India, a country emerging as “regional economic anchor and provider of security in the broader Indian Ocean region”. It is obvious that the new US strategy will have profound implications for the future security balance in East Asia, particularly in Southeast Asia, at a time when Washington has already been able to inject fresh vigor into its “alliance” relationship with Japan and South Korea and ‘partnership’ ties with countries like Singapore, besides cementing ties with Vietnam and Indonesia. Beijing’s concerns about the US moves cannot be brushed aside. It vehemently reacted officially (Foreign Mnistry spokesperson, 9 January 2012) describing it as “groundless and untrustworthy” and declaring that “China’s strategic intent is clear, open and transparent.”

Turning attention to the PRC’s role in Southeast Asia, a region where Indian and Chinese interests intersect, it can be said that upper most in Chinese minds are their country’s developmental interests; Beijing realizes that a peaceful and stable Southeast Asia and China’s economic integration with that region are important in the matter of achieving the PRC’s modernization goals by the set deadline of mid-21st century. Look at the Chinese success in forging vibrant economic ties with ASEAN nations from this angle. Well-known are the China-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement signed in 2010 and its participation in a series of sub-regional cooperation agreements.

On the contrary, in the military, territorial and resources fronts, China’s ‘Core Interests”-based neighborhood policy is giving rise to conflicts between it and regional nations. This has been despite China’s “New Security Concept” aimed at reassuring neighbors that it is not an economic and security threat to them. Strategic issues dividing China and some ASEAN nations have become deeper as a result of China’s growing territorial assertiveness. Through its unilaterally drawn U-shaped curve, called ‘dotted line’ by the Chinese side, the PRC claims vast territories in South China Sea. The result is emergence and continuation of serious sea territory conflicts between China on one hand and Southeast Asian nations on the other. To buttress its claim, Beijing is projecting its force, causing fears in countries like the Philippines and Vietnam etc. In 2002, China signed the “Declaration of the Conduct of Parties in South China sea”, which was not legally binding on the parties concerned; this apparent loophole appears to have given China an excuse to become regionally assertive. No doubt, the PRC joined with Southeast Asian nations at the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) meeting in Bali (23 July 2011) in accepting a set of “guidelines” to better implement the 2002 declaration, but that move only looked like Beijing’s new temporary flexible approach, without signifying any shift in its fundamental Chinese position on the South China sea issue. Interestingly, some Chinese scholars (Professor Peng Zhongying of Renmin University) openly connect China’s assertiveness abroad with the factor of domestic pressures from within China.

There are fundamental positional differences between the US and China, which affect the strategic situation in East and South East Asia. The US stand that the case of the disputed Senkaku Island comes under the jurisdiction of US-Japan security treaty, is being considered as a serious challenge by Beijing. A second example is the US contention that the South China Sea islands dispute should be solved by multilateral efforts. China strongly opposes the same with its counter point that the issue should be solved bilaterally. Strategically, China’s stated concerns about the US role in Asia include Washington’s position on the South China Sea, US military forces in Central Asia, American alliance with Japan and South Korea and US military cooperation with Mongolia (Major-General Luo Yuan). A military viewpoint (Lin Zhiyuan of Department of World Military Research, Academy of Military Sciences, Beijing, Liberation army Daily, 29 December 2011) is that the US is “intensifying security balancing efforts on China, taking comprehensive measures to suppress China and instigating its allies to pay, contribute and appear to restrain China. Through its new strategy, the US is finding a new way to dominate Asia-Pacific region”. There are on the otherhand moderate opinions in China that the US is not for ‘containing’ China, but is only ‘hedging’ against China(Professor Jin Canrong, Renmin University, Beijing).

A big factor concerning the South East Asia strategic situation relates to intra-ASEAN differences on vital issues. While there is a general expectation in Southeast Asia to have the US as a security guarantor in order to counter the rising Chinese influence, certain regional powers are ambivalent on this account. Malaysia and Singapore would like the US and China to coexist peacefully in Southeast Asia. Their economic and trade dependence on China could be a reason for the same. Myanmar has so far remained heavily dependent on China not only for military and economic support, but also for its legitimacy. Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines are, in varying degree, wary of the short term and long term consequences of emergence of China as a major political, economic and military power. Singapore, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand support the principle of ‘freedom of navigation’ in South China Sea (as seen in Bali summit of 2011) as a challenge to China’s position in this regard. There is no support in Southeast Asia to Chinese positions on Taiwan, ties with the US and regional territorial disputes. In all, it can be said that Southeast Asian nations see China only as an economic partner providing prosperity, but consider the US as a security guarantor to regional peace.

Basically, India’s strategic challenges in Southeast Asia come from China. Beijing’s strong objection to India’s collaboration with Vietnam on oil exploration in South China Sea, is a prominent example. Beijing has also reservations on India playing a leading role in the East Asian integration process. We have to remove China’s doubts, maybe through bilateral dialogue. We should understand the nature of economic, political and security perceptions of China which motivate Beijing to look upon India, Australia and New Zealand as “outsiders” to formation of an East Asian order. Our second option should be to build firm bridges with ASEAN nations which all welcome India’s participation. The ASEAN-China free trade pact provides more advantageous terms to the regional nations than what India’s recently signed similar pact does. The “services” sector is still outside the purview of India-ASEAN FTA. India needs to bridge this gap. Also, India can offer assistance to East Asian nations in building capabilities to protect the sea lanes of communication. There is also tremendous scope for India’s cooperation with Southeast Asian nations in the non-traditional security fields.

( The above formed the basis for the presentation made by Mr D.S.Rajan, Director, Chennai Centre for China Studies, at a National seminar on “ Re-evaluating US Foreign PolicyTowards Asia”, organised at Chennai on 9 January 2012, by the Chennai Centre for China Studies in association with Center for Asia Studies and the University of Madras.Email:

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