News Analysis: ASEAN risks being divided in U.S. p

2014-05-23 12:00:00

While the United States, with the pivot to Asia, is testing China's capability to handle diplomatic challenges in ties with its neighborhood, it is carrying out the strategy increasingly at the expense of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) by driving wider the rifts among members of the regional bloc.

Should the ASEAN nations continue to allow the platform, central in facilitating regional economic integration, to be hijacked by the political agenda of the United States and some of the ASEAN nations, it runs a real risk of being divided, said a senior researcher of international relations.

"If the ASEAN was divided, it might become irrelevant," Zheng Yongnian, director of the East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore, said in a recent interview.

The influence of the United States cannot be more overwhelmingly felt in recent years on the South China Sea. It has claimed that it "has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia's maritime commons and respect for international law in the South China Sea."

The rhetoric is often endorsed by Singapore. However, it calls for closer examination. Singapore may mean exactly what it says, being itself a free trade hub sitting on a critical route of sea- borne trade. However, the United States most probably does not.

To Hugh White, professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University, the freedom of navigation the United States has vowed to defend is never an issue. The "fears over the freedom of navigation were overblown," he said.

Meanwhile, Emmanuel Yujuico, a research fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Sciences, sees the claim about respect for international law is problematic.

"Not only is America not a party to the dispute, but its offer to act as a mediator on various claims based on 'international law ' is doubtful given that it is not a signatory to UNCLOS (the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea)," he argued.

While China has long tried to play down the disputes by advocating maritime cooperation and joint development, Clinton created a stir during her visit to Southeast Asia in 2010 by saying resolving the disputes on the South China Sea was a " diplomatic priority" of the United States.

It was onerous. Flare-ups have significantly increased on the South China Sea since then. Some pointed fingers to China despite that China has probably been the one that best abides by the principle of restraint set out in a joint declaration even as some countries drilling for oils in parts of the South China Sea claimed by China, said Tseng Hui-Yi, a research fellow at the East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore.

The claim of "China being increasingly assertive" cannot stand up to scrutiny given that the world's largest developing country sees the current period as a strategic opportunity for economic development. A chaotic neighborhood is simply not in its interest. China has been loath to confront U.S. navy. Its military spending pales in comparison with that of the United States, and the increase has been in line with its economic growth.

As far as territory integrity is concerned, China cannot indefinitely back off from disputes despite its principle of keeping a low profile. It is naive to think that the South China Sea disputes can be resolved quickly or say that China should let go of "a few rocks" to get peace. So the relevant countries need to make long-term efforts to play down the differences for a peaceful resolution to the disputes.

The U.S. rhetoric with the ostensible goal of "preserving peace and stability," especially when coupled with its vowed statement of "no coercion," is but a thinly-veiled instigation, considering the so-called "positive results" in the recent visit to the Philippines and Vietnam by U.S. President Barack Obama and Daniel Russel, the assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, respectively, as some have hailed.

What has happened thereafter shows the signs of U.S. meddling in the disputes cannot be more obvious.

However, it will do no good to regional stability to let maritime disputes dominate on the South China Sea. Neither will it do any good to the centrality of ASEAN as a platform for regional economic integration, which China has supported and respected.

At a recent summit in Myanmar, ASEAN foreign ministers issued a joint statement voicing their concerns and calling for self- restraint on disputes in the South China Sea. However, the disputes are between China and some of the ASEAN member states, but not all the ASEAN nations are claimant states. And the claims of some of the ASEAN members are overlapping, too.

All the countries are not comfortable when ASEAN has to produce such a statement. There was no such embarrassment for ASEAN before the U.S. pivot and the complication of the agenda. Singapore has in the past said that it does not want to be forced to choose.

"The U.S. has little to offer in resolving these territorial disputes, and suggesting that the South China Sea will cause an outbreak of military tensions in the region is not consistent with recent Sino-ASEAN ties that are steadily becoming closer -- especially in the economic realm," Yujuico wrote.

If the ASEAN were divided and marginalized, the United States would be most likely to give only a nonchalant shrug, analysts say.

The good news is that the biggest economies are interdependent in a globalized world. Even the United States itself is not able to go all out and pitch itself against China.