On February 15 and 16, President Obama hosted the first US-ASEAN summit on American soil. Sunnylands, the venue that gained popularity among Chinese public during President Xi and Obama’s historic meeting in 2013, drew global attention again. The summit is substantive as well as symbolic. It is a good conclusion of Obama’s seven-year Southeast Asia policy as much as an encouraging introduction to America’s enduring engagement with the region under a new administration.
American policy toward ASEAN has been quite productive over the past seven years. The US not only enhanced partnership with ASEAN to a strategic level, but also improved relations with individual Southeast Asian countries, including upgrading security ties with Vietnam and the Philippines, making Indonesia a strategic partner, and improving relations with Myanmar and Laos — which were cold for decades. What’s more, as a core part of its strategic rebalance to Asia, this policy has remarkable features: It stressed the need of a rule-based order by advocating maritime disputes being resolved through international law and led to finally achieving the TPP. It invested much energy in a wide range of non-traditional security areas, such as maritime observation, HADR, climate change and human trafficking. It focused on development and civil society through the Lower Mekong Initiative and enhanced coordination with regional powers including Japan, India and Australia regarding ASEAN. Notably, this policy has gained bipartisan support in America, compared to other foreign policy areas, making it more likely to keep the existing momentum no matter who becomes next president.
The summit has attracted much attention from China although the US government said it was not anti-China and the joint statement did not criticize China publicly on maritime disputes. Up to now, the response from the Chinese side is rather moderate. The Chinese government expressed its concerns over the discussions about the South China Sea, meanwhile making it clear that China would support US efforts to develop relations with ASEAN as long as it is beneficial to regional peace, stability and prosperity. For China, it is important to view US-ASEAN relations in a comprehensive way. Moreover, China and the US should think more about their policies to ASEAN and trilateral interactions in the region.
As major powers in the Asia Pacific, China and America share common interests and bear responsibility in maintaining stability and prosperity of the region. However, their different approaches in engaging with ASEAN sometimes have had negative effects on the regional dynamism. First, they have different views on the basis of regional order. The US puts more emphasize on rules and norms, while China values common destiny and interdependence among regional countries. Second, they have disagreements on the meaning of ASEAN Centrality though both of them advocate this Centrality. For America, ASEAN Centrality means ASEAN can act as one when dealing with all important regional issues, including the South China Sea. So it calls for ASEAN to negotiate with China over disputes and take collective actions to counter China’s island-building. From the Chinese perspective, the unity and independence of ASEAN is more important. Thus, China opposes any outside power to use ASEAN as a tool to contain it and insists on dealing with disputes with each claimant. Third, their views in terms of maritime rights clash with each other, based on their different interpretations of international law. The US is determined to continue its freedom of navigation operation while China is going on preserving its own rights through island-building. Fourth, they follow different paths of economic integration with Southeast Asia. The US advocates setting up a more advanced, high-standard economic architecture by leading TPP, which is difficult for China and some ASEAN countries to join in the near future. By contrast, China is committed to the formation of RCEP initiated by ASEAN and six other regional countries. There are two parallel economic architectures looming in the region.
Actually, these differences cannot be eliminated in the near term. But the US and China need to seek opportunities to meet each other half-way rather than run in opposite directions.
First, both of them should view each other’s presence in the region pragmatically. China has to realize that US investment in Asia, especially Southeast Asia, is an irreversible trend. Its deepening ties with ASEAN countries will become a new normal. The US need to recognize that as a neighbor of ASEAN, China has a stake in regional stability. Longtime intimacy and cultural ties link Southeast Asia and China. Therefore, since China and the US are not likely to compromise on some key security issues in the near term, they should do their best to control and manage risks. Particularly, it is sensible for the two militaries to obey the rules of conduct they have agreed on to avoid collisions in sensitive waters and airspace.
Second, they need to be more open-minded to each other’s interests in the region, especially economic interests. China should be aware that ASEAN means enormous economic opportunities for America and is essential to its economic recovery and strength. For the US, it needs to recognize that China has entered into an important phase of development, with economic transformation as its primary task in the coming years. The main objective of China’s Maritime Silk Road Initiative is to achieve sustainable development of its own as well as for its neighbors rather than seeking supremacy in the region.
Third, they need to care more about ASEAN interests and concerns. They should respect Southeast Asian countries’ own political and economic systems and development models, and care more about their development goals and needs. They should also listen to ASEAN countries about their expectations of and fears about the two giants. As for economic integration, they need to take into consideration the current conditions of each Southeast Asian economy and try to figure out a proper relationship between TPP and RCEP. Otherwise, most developing countries in the region will be left behind, which will be detrimental to the interests of all. In all, ASEAN should not be divided by TPP, and two competing economic blocs should be avoided.
Last but not least, China and the US need to pursue trilateral cooperation with ASEAN in various fields, especially non-sensitive issues such as clean energy, illegal fishing, HADR, human and drug trafficking, and diseases prevention. People-to-people exchanges at multiple levels should be greatly encouraged, which will create more opportunities for communication and building mutual trust.