To Tame a Dragon
To Tame a Dragon
Today President Obama will host the first ever US-Asean summit held on American soil, pointedly at the same desert estate in Sunnylands, California where he had entertained Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013. Although officials have offered assurances that this is not going to be an anti-China gathering, the summit aims to strengthen the group’s collective spine against an aggressive China. It will be one of the last major acts of Obama’s presidency to rally Asia in support of his signature initiative to rebalance Chinese regional power. The summit’s outcome will demonstrate whether Asean countries’ security concerns outweigh their growing profitable economic and political linkages with Beijing.
In a pre-summit briefing, an Obama aide said that the president will call for a negotiated settlement of the South China Sea dispute rather than have it resolved by an unnamed – read China – “bigger nation bullying a smaller one”. For the past several years, the US has sought unsuccessfully to nudge Asean members to take a unified stance against China’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea. Although member states Vietnam and Philippines strongly protested Chinese expansion, including its construction of airstrips on artificially built islands, the wider group has only expressed its concern without specifically naming China.
Resistance to staking out a clear position on China’s aggressive moves has come mainly from countries with close economic and military ties with China, such as Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. These countries also have been accommodating of Chinese efforts to deport Uighur and other dissidents, and more recently to kidnap a Hong Kong book publisher who ran afoul of Chinese censors. As one Thai official recently admitted in a newspaper interview, ten million Chinese tourists visiting Thailand every year is a major consideration for staying in Beijing’s good books.
The fact remains, however, that China’s phenomenal economic growth over the past two decades has proved a boon to Asean members that have been major commodities suppliers and supply chain partners for the mainland’s export sector. In the last five years alone, bilateral trade between China and Asean has doubled. While aggressively asserting its claims in the South China Sea, Beijing has tried to woo Southeast Asia with economic carrots – from free trade to state investments and offers to build high-speed railway lines and ports. In essence, China’s approach to Asean has mirrored the one-party state’s contract with its own populace: accept our dominant position and you will be rewarded; challenge us and you will pay.
It is not surprising that anxious Asean members, especially maritime nations like Vietnam and Philippines with the biggest disputes with China, have openly welcomed the US presence in the region. For example, Philippines has given access to US Navy and Air Force, while Singapore and Malaysia have quietly allowed US warships and surveillance aircraft to use their airports and ports to conduct patrols in the South China Sea. Last year, the US earmarked hundreds of millions of dollars for maritime security initiatives designed to bolster the naval and coast guard capabilities of Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam.
However, not all Asean members have been so enthusiastic about US efforts to blunt creeping Chinese expansion. When US navy vessels recently sailed within 12 miles of artificial Chinese islands, exercising their right of freedom of navigation as allowed by the Law of the Sea, the silence of most Asean countries was deafening. Only Philippines and Vietnam welcomed the move and Philippines even proposed joint patrols with the US. The US has tried to win over skeptics through personal diplomacy, inviting the leaders of Indonesia and Vietnam to the White House.
In the economic sphere too, the US is applying the pressure on Beijing. The Obama administration succeeded in enrolling Asean members Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam in its Trans-Pacific Partnership. The ambitious trade and investment group, which aims to create new rules for global business, strengthen intellectual property laws and environmental protections, notably does not include either China or India.
The Sunnylands summit is not about building an anti-China alliance, which is unrealistic given China’s historic and geopolitical position and US reluctance about foreign entanglement. But it would have achieved Obama’s rebalancing goal if Asean leaders are encouraged by economic opportunities and assurances of military support to take a firmer stand against Chinese bullying.
Nayan Chanda is consulting editor and the founding editor of YaleGlobal Online.