World attention is understandably focused on the violence in the Middle East but it is also important to take a closer look at President Barack Obama’s re-engagement with Asia and the Sino-American jostling for power and influence in the region.
America’s military presence looms large over Asia, reassuring many who worry about China’s rising military expenditure and new assertiveness over territorial claims in the South and East China Seas.
Across Asia there is a strong consensus that the US "pivot" to Asia announced last year is designed to contain a rising China.
Washington insists its new policy is not related to China’s growing power or a permanent return to military bases of the past, but it has increased its military presence in the Philippines and other areas near vital sea lanes in the South China Sea.
Most Asians welcome America’s renewed interest — and increased military presence — in the region. But many are also unwilling to get entangled in a dangerous tug-of-war between the world’s two most important powers.
First of all, good relations between the world’s first and second largest economies are critically important for Asian stability as well as global peace. Second, while they may like America’s warm military embrace, most Asian countries depend hugely on China for markets, especially for their commodity exports and for investments.
Third, while willing to discuss, consult and cooperate with their partners, the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) want to ensure their "centrality" in the region.
In other words, America, China, Russia and even Europe are welcome to attend meetings and sign up for trade pacts. But it is Asean that intends to stay in the driving seat, controlling the region’s future direction.
For evidence of the new power play in Asia, look no further than President Obama’s much-publicised visit to Myanmar and the confusion and bad blood on show at the Asean and East Asia summit meetings just held in Cambodia.
The US leader’s trip was rightly viewed in the region as a validation of Asia’s strategic importance. But Obama also came quickly face-to-face with the tough realities of what it will take to counter China’s influence in the region.
Establishing a bigger, more influential presence in the Asia-Pacific region has long been an Obama objective, a goal that analysts say is driven by 21st-century geopolitical considerations and by the Hawaiian-born president’s own self-identity as the first Pacific president.
Just by making the trip — and by making it his first after his re-election — Obama made a point about the importance the US attaches to the region. He was greeted by large crowds chanting his name in Thailand and in Myanmar. But the US leader received a more muted reception in neighbouring Cambodia, a staunch ally of China.
The US president’s participation in the annual summit of Southeast Asian leaders in Phnom Penh and the larger East Asia Summit were another strong indication of US intentions to play a bigger role in the region.
But it was not all plain sailing for America. Underlining their determination to steer the future of the region, Asean leaders launched a proposal for a new trade bloc, to be known as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) which is seen as a rival to a US trade initiative to establish an 11-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which excludes China.
Not surprisingly, China has voiced strong support for the RCEP initiative which would include Asean countries plus six nations that have free-trade agreements with the association: Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea. The TPP, meanwhile, is an economic element in US policy to contain China.
But it was not easy for China either. Significantly China also came in for its share of grilling over its hard-line stance in disputes with four Southeast Asian countries over ownership of islands in the South China Sea. China’s sovereignty claims over the stretch of water off its south coast and to the east of mainland Southeast Asia set it directly against US allies Vietnam and the Philippines, while Brunei, Taiwan and Malaysia also lay claim to parts.
Cambodia, the host of the summits, insisted at one point that its members, by consensus, did not want the South China Sea issue to be “internationalised” — meaning that the US and other countries with interests in the security of the sea, one of the world’s busiest trade routes, would have no say in the rules pertaining to the body of water.
This was fiercely opposed by the Philippines, Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia and Vietnam. Asean has now said it wants to soon start formal talks with China on a code of conduct that would reduce the risk of conflict over the sea. China has balked at such urgency, however.
Obama urged Asian leaders to reduce tensions in the South China Sea and other disputed territory, but stopped short of firmly backing allies Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam in their disputes with China. Possibly not wanting to further antagonise China in the midst of its once-in-a-generation leadership change, he steered clear of the kind of tough public rhetoric he used against Beijing during his last Asia tour a year ago.
At stake is control over what are believed to be significant reserves of oil and gas. Estimates for proven and undiscovered oil reserves in the entire sea range from 28 billion to as high as 213 billion barrels of oil, according to the US Energy Information Administration.
The strains within Asean that were apparent in Cambodia illustrate the difficulty of forging a Southeast Asian consensus over how to deal with an increasingly assertive China. They also showcase how — if left unchecked — Sino-American rivalries risk escalating tensions and divisions in the region.
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