Thursday, September 23, 2010

The United States and ASEAN - Be careful what you wish for

THE communiqué that emerges from the US-ASEAN summit on September 24th will make interesting reading. The summit, a lunch between Barack Obama and leaders of the Association of South-East Asian Nations, is being held on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly.

It marks the Obama administration’s continued effort to “re-engage” with a part of the world that felt neglected as America was distracted by its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In particular, it follows up the spirited intervention by Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, at ASEAN’s Regional Forum, in Hanoi in August.

According to the Associated Press, the draft communiqué picks up Mrs Clinton’s assertion of an American national interest in the South China Sea and will oppose any “use or threat of force by any claimant attempting to enforce disputed claims” there.

This, like her remarks in Hanoi, is clearly directed at China. Similarly, China’s warning this week that “we firmly oppose any country having nothing to do with the South China Sea issue getting involved in the dispute,” clearly meant America.

Its intended audience, however, was in South-East Asia. The ASEAN leaders now find themselves in a bit of a bind. Many, feeling rather bullied by an assertive China, quietly encouraged America to involve itself. But if there is one thing they like less than feeling neglected by America, it is being harangued by China.

In Singapore’s Straits Times, Barry Wain has reported that China’s robust reaction has “had the desired response” in ASEAN. China in any event prefers not to deal with ASEAN as a block on the South China Sea: it likes to pick off rival claimants one by one. And the South-East Asian countries may feel even less inclined to antagonise China just now, for fear it would appear as a concerted attempt to test China's limits, just as its row with Japan over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands seems to be worsening.

On the other hand, toning down or removing the South China Sea references would look very weak, now that they are in the public domain. Still, ASEAN has over four decades of experience in taking the sting out of communiqués. Making the contentious bland is the essence of “the ASEAN way”. Banyan’s Notebook, The Economist

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