US President Barack Obama’s first foreign policy trip abroad since his reelection to reassert American influence in Southeast Asia to counter China’s rising economic and military power in the region ran into strong head winds of tension churned by territorial disputes between Beijing and smaller littoral states in the South China Sea.
Tension flared up on Monday at the summit meeting of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Phnom Penh. Asean leaders plunged into heated discord over how the organization would handle conflicting claims between China and four Asean members—the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam. The leaders had hoped to present a solid front on the territorial disputes but found themselves hopelessly fractured on the issue of how to deal with China.
The day before, on Sunday, they decided to ask China to start formal talks to draft a legally binding code of conduct in the West Philippine Sea (the Philippines’ name for the South China Sea) to avert armed conflict over the disputed territories. The decision proved provocative to China, which had earlier warned that the summit should not be overshadowed by a dispute, “as the situation is under control and countries involved can resolve differences themselves.” This warning underscored China’s preferred approach to conflict resolution—bilateral, rather than multilateral, talks, a mode that favors China, allowing it to bully weaker neighbors. It had also warned the United States against intervening in the disputes.
The Asean move to close ranks behind the multilateral approach crumbled in the face of China’s pressure and threats. It came as Asean wound down its two-day meeting and as it prepared to start a dialogue between Obama and outgoing Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in another and related forum, the East Asia summit. The expanded-dialogue participants included Japan, India, Russia, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.
The move sparked a heated debate between President Aquino of the Philippines and Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia, an ally of China. It also exposed the deep divisions in Asean on the issue of a unilateral or bilateral approach. The clash was provoked by a report of Cambodia, the summit host, on Sunday that Asean leaders had agreed not to “internationalize” the disputes and would continue negotiations between the bloc and China. Mr. Aquino heatedly disputed the report on Monday, insisting that no such consensus had been reached.
He took exception to Hun Sen’s remarks that the Asean countries had agreed to negotiate the West Philippine Sea dispute within an “Asean-China” framework. “The Asean route is not the only route,” Mr. Aquino said at the Asean-Japan summit, one of the side meetings. He understood the Hun Sen statement to mean the exclusion of other international forums to resolve territorial disputes, including the United Nations’ Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).
At the Asean summit, Mr. Aquino also asked the United States to be involved in the discussions. He spoke at a session attended by Obama. “It is especially vital to have the world’s largest economy involved in the discussions considering the interconnectedness of our milieu,” he said. These remarks were expected to anger China. The fractures at the Asean summit opened the way to a tumultuous encounter between Obama and Wen at the East Asian summit, within the full view of Asean leaders and their dialogue partners.
Obama’s Asian swing, visiting Thailand, Burma (Myanmar), and Cambodia, is described by White House officials as demonstrating US clout in Asia. This is expressed through the foreign policy to “pivot” to Asia, a strategy shift aimed at expanding US presence in the Asia-Pacific, in the face of China’s rising economic and military power.
The East Asian summit will mark the first meeting of US and Chinese leaders after the US presidential election and the selection of Xi Jinping as secretary general of the Chinese Communist Party at its 18th national party congress last Thursday.
Obama’s trip closely followed the Chinese Communist Party’s congress, in which Hu Jintao, the outgoing president, called for China to become a “maritime power.” Hu told the opening session of the congress: “It should … resolutely safeguard China’s maritime rights and interests, and build China into a maritime power.” The Financial Times reported that Hu’s speech “will fuel concerns among its neighbors and in the US over how it deals with a host of territorial disputes.”
A recent article in Bloomberg explains Obama’s Asia pivot policy. It says Obama’s whirlwind visit to Asia takes place against a backdrop of tension and uncertainty. China and Japan are “at daggers drawn over a handful of rocky islets surrounded by potentially rich deposits of oil and gas.”
It also notes the “territorial tensions between China and a number of its Souheast Asian neighbors in the South China Sea.”
As US officials have taken pains to point out, however, America has reasons far beyond China’s military spending to seek a bigger presence in Asia. The region now accounts for 25 percent of US exports (supporting an estimated 2.4 million jobs) and 35 percent of its imports. By 2030, according to one estimate, it will account for 49 percent of the global population, 43 percent of the gross domestic product, 35 percent of trade, and 38 percent of market capitalization. “Failure to deepen US engagement with Asia would be strategic malpractice on a grand scale.”