ASEAN and contemporary US diplomacy in East Asia

Evi Fitriani, Jakarta | Fri, 08/13/2010 9:09 AM | Opinion

Despite US President Barack Obama twice postponing his visit to Indonesia, there has been a marked increase in high-ranked US officials reaching out to Southeast Asia.

The most prominent being the visit by US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to Jakarta to discuss the future of US-Indonesian military cooperation and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s presence at the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in Hanoi last month.

China’s economic growth and its ability to capitalize its economic strength to political-strategic influence in the region and global diplomacy has irritated the US. The world’s sole superpower now depends on Chinese investment to secure its economy.

The US does not only suffer continuous trade deficits against China, but also has to finance its budget on government bonds, much of which have been bought by China.

Clinton flew to China soon after the collapse of American financial market in 2009 to assure the Chinese government that China’s capital is safe in US hands. There is a global shift in power. The US may still be the strongest military power in the world but it needs strong economic support.

In contrast, with high economic growth and around US$2.45 trillion in foreign exchange reserves, the biggest in the world, China can afford to build a very modern military, including a blue-ocean navy that may project its leverage in the Pacific and beyond.

On top of this hard power, China’s business interests have expanded into Africa and Latin America. With a very close link between politics and business in China and the centralized political system controlled by the Chinese authority, economic tools can be used to pursue political-strategic interests, and vice versa.

China has used its economic strength as a powerful tool in international relations which, in turn, may threaten US interests in Asia and around the globe.

In short, China’s economic strength and political-strategic influence have made the US more vulnerable domestically and abroad.

The US’ current outreach to countries in Southeast Asia is to balance China’s influence and mitigate its vulnerability.

America’s traditional ally in Asia, Japan, seems unable to play a significant role in balancing China in Asia due to its domestic political and economic problems.

Japan’s continuing struggle to reform its economic and political systems have taken a toll in the country’s diplomacy and limited its foreign policy. The US can’t rely on Japan to secure US interests in Asia.

Consequently, the US has actively approached ASEAN countries and insisted on joining the East Asian Summit (EAS). While the intensity may be different, all of the 10 members of the ASEAN have had their own historical engagements with the US.

The establishment of ASEAN in 1967 has been widely perceived as one part of the US’ strategy to contain communism in the region during 1960s.

Perhaps, ASEAN is the only realistic choice for the US to pursue its interests in Asia. While it has been criticized for being too weak institutionally and too compromising politically, ASEAN is the world’s longest running geo-political organization after the EU.

ASEAN countries have not only maintained the longevity of their regional institution beyond the Cold War, but expanded the institution’s membership to include almost all countries in Southeast Asia.

In addition, despite the emergence of various regional institutions in the region, ASEAN has developed as the core of Asian regional architecture since 1990s.

While there are frequent questions about ASEAN’s institutional capability to handle regional affairs and crises, ASEAN countries seem to occupy the driver’s seat in Asian regional forums.

Nevertheless, ASEAN’s important position in the regional architecture means the organization’s leaders should not overlook challenges in regard to the US’ revitalized presence in Asia and its accession to the EAS.

History teaches us that the reasons behind the absence of solid Asian regionalism and identity derive not only from domestic problems and inter-state distrust among Asian countries, but also from the presence of external powers like the US in the region.

While traditional US strategy in East Asia is to oppose any single notion of domination, ASEAN should not let the Americans re-establish their own domination in the region.

ASEAN should be able to become the host in Asia and determine the course of Asian regional architecture based on reciprocal respect and mutual benefits between countries and external actors.

Despite the need to use acceptable diplomatic language, ASEAN countries have to be able to safeguard the region’s interests vis-à-vis external actors.

ASEAN countries need to balance China’s influence in the region too. The strategy looks to be to include Japan and Australia in the EAS. With the accession of the US, ASEAN should have more room to maneuver in dealing with China.

The revitalization of US presence in the region can be used to increase Southeast Asian countries’ bargaining power against China’s aggressiveness in the South China Sea. At the ASEAN Regional Forum last week, we saw antagonism between the US and China in handling the Spratly Islands conflict.
Nevertheless, ASEAN should not become the victim of the US – China competition in the region.

ASEAN countries should increase their institutional capability and build inter-state trust in order to become a smart mediator that can deal with external actors without sacrificing their own interests.

The writer is a senior lecturer in the International relations Department, University of Indonesia (Jakarta), and a PhD candidate in the Australian National University (Australia).

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