President Barack Obama’s upcoming participation in the East Asia, APEC, and the ASEAN-U.S. confabs in Southeast Asia during his October trip to the region will highlight important challenges that the region faces, particularly the role that small states play in great power relations. While analysts and scholars are still debating the relationship between the United States and rising China, the countries of Southeast Asia, independently and as ASEAN, already understand that the ultimate nature of relations between the two great powers will directly affect them. For that reason, they do not want to wait passively for the result, but are actively engaging the U.S., China and other external stakeholders to help shape the evolving regional order.
China seeks a new type of great power relationship with the U.S. that would give it almost-equal status to the latter in the global arena. Beijing is seeking assurances from Washington that U.S. policy will take Chinese interests into account. In Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia, this would mean that China will have unspoken primacy in the same way that the U.S. enjoys an unchallenged role in the Western hemisphere.
Thus, China’s actions such as disputing Japan’s administrative control over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands by regularly dispatching maritime surveillance vessels to the surrounding area, taking over the Philippines’ Scarborough Shoal and attempting to take over Second Thomas Shoal, and maintaining a long-running dispute with Vietnam over the Paracels are alarming indications that it is willing to do what it takes to prevent violations of what it considers its sovereign territory.
Southeast Asia has generally enjoyed peaceful and productive relations with China. In fact, ASEAN and China have maintained a “strategic partnership” since 2003, which identifies numerous areas for cooperation. Earlier, in 2002, ASEAN and China concluded a Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. As a geographic reality, ASEAN member states have had no choice but to find ways of working with China. The regional body has for that reason always sought to encourage China to play an active role in regional institutions in an attempt to “socialize” it to accepted norms.
Increasingly, though, China expects the respect due a great power, one that has now displaced Japan as the world’s second-largest economy. Yet while China may believe that it is destined to dominate Southeast Asia, most countries in the region would naturally prefer to retain their autonomy. That doesn’t mean they will oppose China directly; indeed, they are prepared to make certain concessions in some areas that do not affect their national interests. Many East Asian countries respect China’s economic wealth and dynamism. Respect, however, does not mean obeisance. Southeast Asian states do not wish to rely entirely on Beijing’s goodwill so they try to balance their engagement with China by engaging external powers through ASEAN and by bilateral means wherever possible.
In contrast, Southeast Asia is much more accepting of U.S. primacy in the region. There are three important reasons for this: U.S. respect for freedom of navigation, its role in preventing other powers from dominating the smaller countries in the region, and its lack of territorial ambitions in that area. The general transparency of U.S. policymaking is also helpful to Southeast Asian states in that they have an idea of how the U.S. will react to certain policy decisions that they might make. The U.S. rebalancing has been welcomed by many ASEAN countries as both an affirmation of the region’s importance, and also as representing a formal commitment to deeper engagement in the broader Asia-Pacific region.
Still, ASEAN as a whole does not want to be in a position that would force it to choose between Beijing and Washington. First, it has always sought to position itself as a neutral and credible platform for dialogue among great powers through entities such as the ASEAN Regional Forum, the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus and various ASEAN Plus mechanisms. Second, there is always the fear that the U.S. commitment to the region will disappear once a new crisis erupts, especially in the Middle East. Even in the face of greater Chinese assertiveness in its territorial disputes in the South China Sea, ASEAN has refused to categorically take the side of its own members that have borne the brunt of Beijing’s displeasure. It is easy to imagine the chagrin this would cause the leaders of these member states, but ASEAN’s caution is also understandable.