Friday, Jul 28, 2017, 8:52 PM CST – China

International

US-ASEAN Summit

Long Shot

Despite all parties failing to adopt a tough, united stance against China at the most recent US-ASEAN summit, the meeting nonetheless reflects a long-term trend of developing ties between the US and its Asian partners

A patrol vessel berthed in Sansha City, a settlement built on disputed Yongxing (Woody) island in 2012, departs on an environmental survey mission, August 14, 2015 Photo by Xinhua

US President Barack Obama and ASEAN leaders attend a plenary session on innovation and entrepreneurship at the Sunnylands estate in Rancho Mirage, California, February 15, 2016 Photo by CFP

On February 15 and 16, US President Barack Obama hosted top leaders from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Sunnylands, California. As the first-ever stand-alone US-ASEAN summit, the event was widely deemed a watershed event marking a new era for ties between the US and the Southeast Asian trading bloc.

Many believe that by having the summit take place on the same estate where Obama previously hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping, the US was attempting to convey the symbolic message that the US considers China and Southeast Asia as equal priorities.

Failure?

In recent years, the US has been trying to push ASEAN nations to adopt a unified position opposing China in its territorial disputes with several bloc members, pressure that has been interpreted as a major strategy within the US’s “rebalancing” policy in Asia. In response, China insisted that disputes should only be resolved between claimant countries, and warned “outside interests” against “meddling.”

As the joint statement released after the Sunnylands summit made no mention of either China or the South China Sea, merely agreeing that any territorial disputes should be resolved peacefully and “through legal means,” some have described the summit as yet another failed attempt by the US to rally ASEAN countries to collectively adopt tougher language on China.

Given the complexity of the relationship between the US, China and ASEAN, deeper examination of the long-term impact of closer ties between the US and ASEAN, seemingly cemented at Sunnylands, offers more insight than knee-jerk responses in the press.

To a large extent, the vagueness of the Sunnylands joint statement was unsurprising. Despite rising tensions in the disputed waters, only half of the ASEAN member states – Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei – have territorial claims in the South China Sea. Of these, only Vietnam and the Philippines have actively opposed Chinese claims in recent years. Another layer of complexity is the fact that some individual member states’ claims overlap with one another.

Meanwhile, the non-claimant ASEAN countries – Singapore, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia – have close economic ties to China, and are thus reluctant to get involved in a fight they don’t view as theirs.

The vagueness of the joint declaration issued after the summit simply reflects enduring divisions within ASEAN about how unresolved territorial disputes should be handled. Instead of turning the spotlight to China, the joint statement appears to emphasize broader principles as it reaffirmed “a shared commitment to peaceful resolution of disputes.”

It also reaffirmed “a shared commitment to maintain peace, security and stability in the region, ensuring maritime security and safety, including the rights of freedom of navigation and overflight.”

Analysts believe the rhetoric of the joint statement that focuses on “legal means” and “rule-based order” heralds future courtroom maneuvers, particularly with a ruling on the status of maritime features implicated in the South China Sea dispute expected from the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) in a judgment in March.

China has refused to participate in the arbitration or to accept the result of the ITLOS ruling. However, if the decision turns out to be unfavorable towards China’s claims, it would not only exert more pressure on Beijing, but also make it harder for non-claimant ASEAN countries to continue to sidestep moves by the US and its allies to push for a tougher line on China from ASEAN.

Escalation

Indeed, intentional vagueness and emphasis on broader principles may pose a greater challenge to China’s stance and strategy in the South China Sea than any strongly worded communique issued by US allies.

From China’s perspective, by adopting globally accepted principles in a joint statement with ASEAN, the US can interpret these principles in a way that supports and favors its own actions on identified issues, giving Washington the semblance of acting with the blessing of a united ASEAN.

As the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) does not legally underwrite the US definition of freedom of navigation (FON) operations, the US is not a signatory to one of the few international treaties some see as relevant to the current disputes in the South China Sea. Many experts argue that it is still controversial to view passage of military warships through another country’s territorial waters as “innocent.”

While the US has warned against China “militarizing” the South China Sea, China argues that the appearance of advanced American weapon systems such as warships and military aircraft in disputed areas is itself an act of “militarization,” and a violation of the principle of “peaceful resolution of disputes” advocated by the US during its engagement with ASEAN.

On January 30, after the guided missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur sailed within 12 nautical miles of Zhongjian (Triton) Island in the Xisha (Paracel) archipelago, China called the deployment an escalated provocation. Unlike the situation in the Nansha (Spratly) islands, where islands, reefs and shoals have fallen under the de facto control of several countries including China, Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia, the Xisha chain is only disputed by China and Vietnam. China first established its control over Yongxing (Woody) island, the largest island in the Paracel chain, in 1956, finally gaining the entire archipelago after defeating the then South Vietnam in a naval skirmish in 1974.

Declaring a territorial sea baseline around the Xisha/Paracel islands in 1996, China only acknowledges dispute over the sovereignty of the Nansha/Spratly islands, maintaining that the status of the Xisha/Paracels is not up for discussion.

Apparently in response to the US FON operation near the islands, China reportedly deployed an advanced surface-to-air missile system to Yongxing/Woody Island.

On February 22, in response to a question regarding the deployment of missile systems to the Xisha/Paracels, Hua Chunying, spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that such a deployment on “China’s own soil” would be comparable to US defense systems deployed in Hawaii, though she did not confirm the placement of the missile defense system in question.

Given the existing divisions within ASEAN, it appears that the US has adopted a different strategy than the one favored in the past. Instead of focusing primarily on establishing a unified position, it now seeks consensus on broader principles, which, once established, might allow the US to take unilateral action with the apparent support of ASEAN.

In forming its own response, China may no longer be able to maintain a vague position on its claims in the South China Sea, and will increasingly be forced to choose between taking a more assertive position, at the risk of alienating its ASEAN partners, or compromising.Neither option appeals to Beijing.

Trade and TPP

In addition to the South China Sea, another major issue discussed during the Sunnylands summit was trade and economic engagement between the US and ASEAN. Compared to the rapidly developing security exchanges between the US and ASEAN member states, Washington has been in a disadvantaged position in terms of trade and economic ties, as China has been the bloc’s number one collective trading partner since 2009.

The recent summit provided an important opportunity for the US to narrow this gap. Obama talked about mutual prosperity, a phrasing which echoed Xi’s “common destiny” rhetoric during his Southeast Asia tour in 2015.

As if in answer to China’s One Belt, One Road and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) initiatives, Obama announced that the US would launch the so-called US-ASEAN Connect initiative, which he said would aim to utilize a network of three urban hubs across Southeast Asia – Singapore, Jakarta and Bangkok – to better coordinate US economic engagement in the region and connect entrepreneurs, investors and businesses.

The summit also addressed the prospect of ASEAN countries’ joining the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, signed by 12 Pacific Rim states last year. Dubbed an “economic NATO” by some, the TPP is widely considered an attempt to counter China’s rising economic influence, as China is excluded from the agreement, and a rival to the China-backed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which, if signed, would include all 10 ASEAN countries, as well as China, Australia, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand. Originally initiated by ASEAN, RCEP negotiations achieved major progress in August 2015.

However, despite the perceived TPP/RCEP rivalry, many ASEAN countries have appeared to give equal emphasis to participating in both. Currently, four ASEAN countries, including Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei, have signed the TPP, and Thailand and Indonesia have also expressed interest in the trade deal.

The rationale behind the interest in both deals from ASEAN countries is well established. Although China is the ASEAN bloc’s biggest trade partner, the existing trade imbalance in China’s favor means the RCEP looks set to further advantage Beijing. Moreover, as Chinese growth has slowed, trade volume between China and ASEAN countries in the first 11 months of 2015 has fallen by 2.1 percent to US$394 billion, while China’s imports from ASEAN countries dropped by almost 10 percent, leading to a 50 percent increase in the ASEAN trade deficit with China.

Against this backdrop, the US, which is the ASEAN bloc’s fourth- biggest collective trade partner, and other TPP member countries, can look equally appealing.

As the US continues to devote more diplomatic, military and economic resources to the Asia-Pacific region, ASEAN is likely to become an increasingly important channel for US diplomacy. On the back of a scheduled visit to Vietnam in his last months in office, Obama is expected to visit Laos, chair of ASEAN in 2016, which would make him the first sitting US president to visit both countries.

In the meantime, still struggling with its recent economic difficulties, China may find it increasingly difficult to strike a balance between economic engagement with ASEAN and managing disputes over sovereignty with its member states, especially with the US seemingly on the offensive.

From this perspective, the US-ASEAN summit in Sunnylands may indeed prove to be a landmark event that kicked off an intensified rivalry between major Asian powers.

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