The swing through Southeast Asia by Hilary Clinton allowed the United States’ Secretary of State to champion the impoverished and oppressed and challenge China whose overbearing reach is causing political convulsions in the region.
She put relations with Laos on a firmer footing, becoming America’s highest ranked diplomat to visit the country in 57 years. Clinton then pushed Vietnam to play a greater regional role, while later in Burma she capitalized on an easing in U.S. sanctions, winning applause from business.
Clinton also announced Washington would provide Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Burma with US$50 million over next three years for health, education and environmental programs.
In the aftermath of the Cold War most of these countries found themselves politically relegated as The Philippines and Thailand emerged as the frontlines of U.S. foreign policy in the region but dynamics have changed sharply over recent years with China flexing its muscles and vying for influence.
Against that backdrop, Clinton flew into Phnom Penh where foreign ministers from the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) were meeting with counterparts from around the Asia Pacific and Europe at the annual ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF).
Topping the agenda was the Code of Conduct (COC), an agreement first proposed 10-years ago aimed at resolving any conflict around the resource-rich and strategically important Spratly and Paracel islands.
About half of the world’s trade sails through the sea lanes they straddle. China claims the lot while Vietnam also has a longstanding claim over the Paracels and parts of the Spratlys, where The Philippines has significant traditional interests and sovereign rights.
Parts of the Spratlys are also claimed by Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan.
The U.S. and China were poles apart on the issue with Washington favoring expediency and arguments forged by Vietnam and The Philippines that disputes around the remote island chains with China should be resolved through a united front put forward by ASEAN.
Manila also insisted on a communiqué mentioning the bloc’s concern over its recent standoff with Beijing at Scarborough Shoal which has taken relations between the pair to their lowest ebb in years.
This has not been to China’s liking which used its close relationship with Cambodia – struck on the back of financial deals — to obstruct any agreement on the document. It prefers the status quo with sovereign disputes dealt with on a bilateral basis.
“It’s a long, slow process and one that appears to be fraught with dangers. The main hope is that China will realize that acting aggressively as it did with the Philippines will create some restraint among all the protagonists,” said Keith Loveard, a Jakarta-based regional analyst with Concord Security.
He added that U.S. overtures to Vietnam and the use of Cam Ranh Bay would not convince the Chinese that it was in its best interests to go too softly.
In October 2010, Vietnam announced it would open up its deep water port at Cam Ranh Bay to the world’s navies and merchant mariners following an upgrade. It was a masterful political stroke, opening up the seaways, allowing the U.S. access to its ports and putting Beijing on the back foot.
At about the same time, the U.S. clearly outraged China by declaring that the sea lanes and unimpeded trade through the Spratlys was in its national interests. Beijing was irritated even further by U.S. President Barack Obama whose administration announced a diplomatic realignment with Southeast Asia.
This made Cambodia’s role as chair of this year’s summit all the more important. It attempted to introduce “key elements” to the COC but refused to elaborate publicly on what they were.
Sources who saw the document told The Diplomat that it lacked any new enforcement measures. This pleased Beijing while Hanoi and Manila were furious and effectively killed of any chance of concluding a deal on the COC.
Tensions continued to intensify, negotiators were annoyed by a Cambodian habit of consulting with China while still in talks with fellow members of ASEAN and for the first time in 45 years the bloc failed to issue a closing statement.
“ASEAN is once again demonstrating that it really does not have the weight to be able to achieve anything in this sort of stand-off between much greater powers, leaving individual member states to make their own deals,” Loveard added.
“The fact that most of them prefer to snuggle up to the U.S. is hardly likely to please China, so keeping the area conflict-free appears to be a very difficult goal.”
Clinton flew to Siem Reap where she met with independent union leaders responsible for the livelihoods of garment workers, the vast majority of them women, and onto Burma where leaders have grown wary of Chinese ambitions in the region.
Human rights groups were critical of the U.S. decision to lift sanctions against Burma despite widespread applause for political and social reforms. They say much more needs to be done and by allowing deals with Burma’s state-owned oil companies the U.S. could be undercutting opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, among others, who are demanding government accountability.
Clinton also raised the fate of Rohingyas—a Muslim ethnic group in western Burma—who have been at the center of conflict with Rakhine Buddhists, which resulted in violent riots a month ago leaving at least 78 people dead and tens of thousands homeless.
It’s a sore point with Naypyidaw. President Thein Sein wants the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to resettle the Rohingya in a third country or take responsibility for them. This was rejected and Clinton stressed that the U.S. considers the Rohingyas internally displaced people.
“In other words this is Burma’s problem and they will have to deal with it. The idea that the president of a country would like to see one of its main ethnic groups evicted is awful but Clinton dealt with it in a very straightforward manner,” one long-time Burma analyst, who declined to be named, said.
“And the Burmese wore it and will have to deal with the Rohingyas as a domestic issue as opposed to trying to offload it onto the international community,” he said.
Throughout her tour Clinton rarely flinched on human rights and yet left Southeast Asia on a vastly improved footing with Vietnam, Laos and Burma. All three have less than stellar records on human rights.
Relations with traditional allies in Thailand and The Philippines remained solid while with Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia, the U.S. stands in good stead.
It’s the type of relationship that China can only wish for and one the Cambodians risk missing out on by continuing to be Beijing’s closest ally inside a political and trading bloc that was initially designed to fend off and compete with Chinese hegemony—not represent it.
The U.S. push back into Asia is well on track.