At the beginning of 2016 there were two developments in Southeast Asia that caught the world’s attention: the establishment of the economic community of ASEAN and the U.S.-ASEAN Summit in California. As the most dynamic economic engine and a region full of geopolitical entanglements, Southeast Asia has been under the spotlight for some time. How the two big powers of China and the U.S. interact with each other will to a large extent shape the future order of the region in the coming years.
ASEAN includes 10 countries with a combined population of 622 million and a GDP of 2.6 trillion dollars, taking 7th place in global rankings. The economic community is derived from more than 10 years’ efforts at regional integration by ASEAN. The U.S.-ASEAN Summit on the other hand is the first of its kind, indicating the resolve of Obama Administration to reinforce its strategy of “rebalance to Asia.” The U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Asia spoke of the summit before the opening, indicating that despite only involving the U.S. and ASEAN, it is not against China. But in contradiction to his remarks, both President Obama and his national security advisor Susan Rice picked the South China Sea as an issue to be discussed at the summit. To the dismay of the U.S., the final communiqué didn’t contain any reference to the dispute, which revealed the symbolic nature of the summit.
ASEAN is China’s neighbor and its economic interdependence with China has been growing fast. The FTA between China and ASEAN came into being in 2010 and has now become an economic entity of 2 billion people with a combined GDP of 13 trillion dollars, and intra-trade of over 5 trillion dollar. Since 2012, China and other 15 Southeast and East Asian countries started negotiation on “Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership” (RCEP) to be concluded by the end of 2016. Naturally with the completion of RCEP, the relations between China and ASEAN will scale a new high toward “the Diamond Decade” with bilateral trade and two-way investment reaching 1 trillion and 160 billion dollars respectively, in full alignment with the concept of “Community of Common Destiny” as proposed by President Xi Jinping.
In political and security areas progress has been made as well, though not as fast as desired. China takes a proactive approach towards activities with ARF, ASEAN+China (10+1) and ASEAN+China, ROK and Japan (10+3), an implementation of policy of good neighborliness by China.
This is all based on China’s strategy of external relations of creating and maintaining a peaceful and prosperous neighborhood. The core elements of such a strategy are peace and development whereby China’s economic achievements will benefit her neighbors and a peaceful and prosperous neighborhood will facilitate China’s further progress towards a better future.
In terms of shaping the regional order, China wishes very much to reduce risks and uncertainties resulting from geopolitical complications. That objective requires China to engage ASEAN nations in a mutually beneficial relationship, and for the U.S. to build “the new type of major power relations” focusing on reaching an understanding of non-confrontation and no conflict so as to achieve a win-win situation through economic cooperation.
Some academics interpreted China’s strategy as that of “hedging” against American “rebalance” by her own “community-building” through trade blocs like RCEP. In other words, China indeed wants to maintain a steady bilateral relationship with the U.S. by avoiding possible conflicts in Southeast and East Asia. The interpretation in this sense is not far from truth, but China’s strategy is not merely a passive reaction to American “rebalance,” whatever that means, rather her aim is to actively build a network of regional partnership, which will benefit all. Hence “hedging” is not what China seeks to accomplish strategically.
“The Belt and Road Initiative” (B&R) proposed by President Xi in late 2013 is exactly such an example. China does not wish to seek a dominating position in her own region either politically or economically. China’s efforts are a clear departure from the traditional geopolitical ambitions of big powers. The concept of establishing a global network of partnerships may sound bland, but it is a breakthrough both in theory and practice in current international relations. It is much richer and encompassing than that of “stakeholders” or alliances or what traditional international relations theories may offer.
Another important player in Southeast and East Asia is the United States. As a great external power the U.S. has a vested interest in the regions views of ASEAN’s efforts at regional integration as an opportunity to pull it to its side in order to counterbalance China’s rising influence. This reflects an outdated idea of “winner-takes-all” approach from the Cold War era.
The 21st century will witness rising global challenges associated with globalization such as climate change, energy security, and new waves of industrialization characterized by artificial intelligence and the information revolution. Yet geopolitics is also on the rise as tensions mount in Asia especially in Southeast and East Asia as well as continued chaos and societal fragmentation in the Middle East.
For Southeast and East Asia to have a favorable architecture, wherein all nations could aspire to common development and prosperity, it is necessary for both the U.S. and China to work closely with each other and with ASEAN. A cooperative spirit is imperative to help shape a regional order based on respect for each other’s core interests and major concerns. It would be counterproductive to use the South China Sea dispute as leverage against China, or for that matter against any other country, rather than trying to seek a peaceful solution through political dialogue and negotiation.
Another issue that comes to mind is the TPP and its present rhetoric, specifically statements by the American President and other senior officials regarding China. The sentiment that China be excluded from the effort to make new global economic rules is simply out of line with globalization and the reality of world economy. It is hoped that the U.S. will seize the opportunity offered by G20 Summit this year under China’s Chairmanship to increase cooperation with China in strengthening global governance as G20 being transformed from a crisis fighting “fire brigade” to a long-term platform to manage global macroeconomic and financial issues affecting all nations.
America’s misperception and “anxiety” about China’s growing influence comes from its misunderstanding of China’s developmental strategy. As the U.S. enters a periodic “retrenchment” in its foreign policy, its anxiety about China taking over its position in Southeast and East Asia grows in proportion. Debate about China policy continues the U.S., and in its election year mood, tends to overact and exaggerate the role of China in the region, which it considers as vitally important to its geopolitical interests.
There is on-going dialogue between China and the U.S. about how the new type of major power relations should be encouraged. What is equally imperative is to cement the strategic consensus reached by both Presidents to illustrate a clear road map of parallel actions, especially in reference to issues in Southeast and East Asia. ASEAN members expect nothing less.