Sunday, October 25, 2015

What do Australia, South Korea and Thailand have in common? All have the same dilemmas in engaging with the US and China

What do Australia, South Korea and Thailand have in common? All have the same dilemmas in engaging with the US and China

All three are members of the US alliance in the Asia-Pacific. But their commonality does not end there. They all accept the rise of China and its influence in international order. Most of all, they heavily depend on economic ties with China, the arch-rival of the US. China is also their No. 1 trading partner.


In addition, they all have the same dilemmas in engaging with the US and China. As the tension between the two superpowers rising--find the right balance between the strategic demand and economic growth to ensure "win-win" relations.

Each ally has pursued a different policy approach, with strength and constraints, depending on issues and substances. All along they have been able to strike the balance needed to keep the trade transactions going with China while strengthening strategic relationship with the US. Both Australia and South Korea have benefitted the most when the US-China ties were at a friendly level. That helps explain why they have courted China all along and dramatically transformed the world No. 2 economy as their top traders and investors.

Traditionally, Thailand has long been following a dual approach to China and US trying to avoid a situation that would allow these two national interests to collide. Of late, there have been intensification of Thai-China overall cooperation, much to the chagrin of Washing.

However, this ideal situation is gradually eroding due to the growing US-China strategic competition and the rising tension over the South China Sea on display at present. Although the current confrontation would not in any way lead to an outright war, as many pundits believe, it would directly impacts on the current stable relations they have enjoyed with China. Therefore, some dramatic adjustments are required for the US allies in the Asia- Pacific--very much hinging on their level of perceived threats of China.

For instance, in the foreseeable future, Australia would be obliged to show support for the US military might in the region. Since the end of 2011, Australia has been one of the most important partners of US rebalancing policy in Asia; and in 2014 allowing 2,500 American marines for a rotational training and stay in Darwin. From now on, Canberra has to be extremely cautious not to irk Beijing as it would affect their newly transformed comprehensive strategic partnership, which has attracted billions of dollars of investment from China.

Without exception, South Korea is also facing the same brinksmanship. Its latest decision to join the Trans Pacific Partnership was shrewd weighting carefully between the economic and security necessities. When President Park Guen Hye showed up in Beijing in early September as the only East Asian leader attending the military parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of Pacific War, it was a leap of faith as Seoul is betting more on China's side, not for only economic benefits but for future strategic imperatives much to the chagrins of Washington.

Doubtless, Seoul has placed a high premium on the recent concluded free trade pact with China ahead of the US-led multilateral framework. Seoul knows full well that one day it has to face a similar situation Australia encountered—showing unwavering commitment to the US-South Korea security alliance. Japan did exactly that recently when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pushed through successfully the two security laws that allow the Japanese troops to fight overseas and if need be for the alliance. Tokyo has to respond in kind followed Washington's pronouncement that the US-Japan security treaty covers the island's dispute with China.

Thanked to North Korea's rogue attitude and unpredictability, both the US and South Korea have been able for the time being to target this nuclear-aspired neighbor as their most serious threat, thumbing down China's one. They also have joined China's calling for the resumption of six-party talks, which was suspended in 2007. It must be noted that the public sentiment in South Korea for a reduction of US troop remains strong.

Thailand must count itself as lucky as it does not perceive China as a threat. It has the flexibility to engage both the US and China simultaneously. The coup last year has literally frozen the US-Thai relations allowing the stable China-Thai cooperation to frog leap forward especially in security area. Washington mistook the event last year as another hiccups in the country's political vicious circle, which could be ignored. China resisted such analysis and intensified security cooperation with Thailand, resulting in bolstering joint military exercises and other collaborative projects. It is still early to assess this new shift will have on the US-Thai alliance.

What is at stake is high - the enduring US-led regional order since the end of World War II and the future of US alliance in the Asia-Pacific. The other two allies, Japan and the Philippines are on the US side. Unfortunately, the world today is no longer dominated by the US power as other powers also surge. The dramatic economic shift from the Atlantic to the Asian continent indicates the growth of its economy which has been propelled by China. Now, it is in a position to challenge the US not in this region but the rest of the world.

However, it would in this Asian geopolitical theatre that the competition would be fierce and eventually determine which power would prevail as well as the sustainability of the US alliance system. Kavi Chongkittavorn
The Nation

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