Nov 27, 2012

Thailand - Asean summit: the morning after

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The Asean Summit in Phnom Penh that just ended drew considerable international attention even amid missiles in Gaza and another crisis in Europe. The attention has little to do intrinsically with the group of ten countries. The Summit's significance is magnified through the lens of US-China competition.

US President Barack Obama took his first overseas trip since winning re-election. This was perhaps the last visit by outgoing Chinese Premier Wen Jiao-Bao. Over the last two years, the Obama administration has made a concerted "pivot" to the region, whereas Beijing has seen alarm raised with neighbours over territorial disputes.

Obama did well. In 2009, he was assailed in the American press for being too soft here. This time he pushed and persuaded on both economics and politics.

In Bangkok, the president reminded Thailand of its long-standing US alliance and prodded the country towards entering the US-led Trans-Pacific partnership (TPP) for closer economic links. In Myanmar, Obama - the first US president to visit the country - met reformist president Thein Sein, and called the country "Myanmar".

He then embraced - quite literally and heartily - iconic opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and called the country "Burma". The sensitive human rights question about problems in Rakhine State was raised, as was expected, given the criticism that a presidential visit was premature.

Add this to strengthened ties with Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines, and the Obama administration's two terms will be noted for re-engaging Asean. Credit goes to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has been especially proactive in paving the way for the president.

But another factor has been China. Concerns about Beijing's ambitions have made other Asians much more receptive to American attention. It doesn't help that Beijing stands accused of influencing Cambodia as the Asean chair, so the group's July ministerial meeting floundered. This summit too showed signs of disunity when Cambodia's draft statement led several leaders to reiterate their positions and insist on re-wording the text to salvage the situation.

Amid this, President Obama did not need to stoke anxieties about China. He had instead the luxury of urging all sides to show restraint. When Asians can't get along with each other, the position of the US is reinforced.

Intra-Asian differences will continue. The Philippines - most vocal against Chinese maritime claims - has called for a meeting with other Asean claimants Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei. China is pointedly excluded.

How Chinese leaders now respond can potentially shape relations with the region as a whole. So far China has punished the Philippines by cutting off tourist visits, bought overpriced rice from Thailand, asserted influence over Cambodia and provoked an Asean schism. These cannot be Beijing's mainstays.

China has always said it supports Asean centrality, and its response needs instead to be broader and forward looking. After all, China's economy continues to grow while Washington stands at the edge of a financial cliff.

So while Asians welcomed President Obama, questions linger over the American wherewithal to remain engaged and grow alongside Asia. China should put trade and investment at the front and centre in its engagement with the rest of Asia - and not territorial disputes.

Accordingly, China would do well to give attention to something else that was launched at the summit. This is the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), to link Asia with China and India, with Asean as the hub. Others, like Australia, are also in the frame. Despite Obama's charisma, the US is not within this economic group, and instead champions the TPP.

The RCEP sets the stage for a new stage in Asian regionalism, centered on economics. If it can make the agreed deadline of 2015, this wider effort would support Asean's own target for community integration. The RCEP is still at a preliminary stage and there are many obstacles ahead. But if it can progress, the RCEP can provide many avenues to broaden the agenda and create more positive perceptions about China's role in Asia. Beijing should do all it can to help Asean move forward with this.

Simon Tay

Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and teaches international law at the National University of Singapore Faculty of Law. He is the author of Asia Alone: The Dangerous Post Crisis Divide from America.

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