President Obama cancelled his trip to Southeast Asia due to the federal government shutdown, and appointed Secretary of State John Kerry to attend the occasions instead. While the country was trapped by domestic political disagreement and polarization and was pressured by China and Japan to resolve its debt ceiling stand-off without delay, it still took time out to trumpet that Chinese President Xi Jinping took advantage of President Obama’s absence to push China’s offers to neighboring countries.
The Notion of the Zero-sum Game Still Works
The US has reaffirmed that it does not aim at containing China and will work with China to build a “special relationship” which means that the US is willing to accommodate China’s rise, including China’s increasing roles in the Asia-Pacific. However, it seems that it is easier said than done.
Frequent exchange visits between China and ASEAN have been taken by the US as the former making great efforts to strengthen its ties with the latter, with the intention of counterbalancing US influence.
Immediately following President Xi’s visit to Southeast Asia which included visiting Indonesia and Malaysia as well as attending the 21st APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang attended the 16th China-ASEAN (10+1) Summit, the 16th ASEAN Plus China, Japan and the Republic of Korea (10+3) Summit and the 8th East Asia Summit (EAS). He also paid official visits to Brunei, Thailand and Vietnam. The day after Li finished his visit to Southeast Asia, ASEAN Secretary-General Le Luong Minh started his trip to China.
In contrast, the leader of the world’s largest economy failed in making full participation at the events. Some regional countries have expressed disappointment and dissatisfaction with this, because they believe that this reflected the neglect from the US side. What is more important, they are suspicious of the consistency and continuity of the US “rebalance”, from which they are expecting more investments.
When President Xi encouraged macroeconomic policy coordination, economic and financial stability and sustainable development of Asia-Pacific, John Kerry, acting as Obama’s stand-in, deliberately emphasized the “importance of intellectual property” in his speech at the APEC CEO Summit and warned the countries that “want to be innovation economies” about their “ideas at risk of being stolen”.
The US is also worried that China will seek leadership in Asia-Pacific in the context of fading US influence.
Facts speak louder than words. Since the US and China have reached agreements to work towards a new type of relationship between great countries, both sides need to avoid contradictory behaviors which will undermine the foundation of mutual trust.
China’s Success Is Not At the Cost of the US Interests
Currently, China’s foreign relations with ASEAN seem to be more skilled and confident.
First, China has kind of succeeded in making ASEAN realize that China’s development is a blessing for regional prosperity and it is willing to bring more benefits to the neighbors. China has sensed the concern of the regional countries about its development in recent years. The country has tried to show its sincerity in peaceful development. At the same time, China stressed common interests and shared goals with ASEAN, which play as the foundation for cooperation.
Second, China is increasing investments in the fields that have already boosted China-ASEAN relationship. China-ASEAN free trade area has worked effectively in promoting trade cooperation and people’s exchanges between the two sides. Chinese leaders underlined the importance of upgrading this free trade area. Interconnectivity has also been a focus in China-ASEAN relationship. Accordingly, China proposed establishing Asian infrastructure investment bank to provide further support for improving regional interconnectivity.
Third, China tailored some approaches to deal with specific challenges nowadays. In consideration of the global economic crisis which has had serious impact on regional economies, China facilitated financial cooperation to jointly deal with challenges. Maritime cooperation is another focus in the context of increasing uncertainties in South China Sea. China has also realized that people-to-people will strengthen the ties between countries. Therefore, China set up plans for encouraging cultural exchanges and travel facilitation.
Last but not least, China has made progress in addressing South China Sea disputes. Maritime cooperation is helpful for easing the tension. China and Vietnam announced to establish work group, which will be helpful to form pleasant environment for resolving territorial disputes.
China’s confidence in the relationship with ASEAN seems to be self-dependent. It is not fueled by undermining the US interests. On the contrary, China has been seeking co-existence and coordination with the US presence in Asia-Pacific. A case in point is that China cautiously avoided the impression that it was promoting Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) as a competitor of Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) which was supported by the US.
Therefore, the US should have a practical judgment on the current situation in Asia-Pacific. China is aware that it is mission impossible to gain exclusive influence in the region.
The US no-show doesn’t necessarily lead to a clearer field for China. With closer ties with China, especially in the economic fields, Southeast Asian countries are also eager to strengthen their relationship with the US.
Su Xiaohui, Deputy Director, Department of International and Strategic Studies, China Institute of International Studies.