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    Southeast Asia
     Dec 10, 2005
Why Southeast Asia is turning from US to China
By Tim Shorrock

WASHINGTON - The United States is rapidly losing its influence in the Southeast Asia region to China, thanks to an overly narrow focus on terrorism and a propensity to place bilateral ties above multilateral relationships, according to US and Chinese analysts.

"China makes a point of dealing with Southeast Asia as a region and has a very aggressive ASEAN policy," said Catharin Dalpino,



an Asia specialist at Georgetown University who served in the Clinton administration. "This also helps its bilateral relationships with Southeast Asia quite a lot."

ASEAN is the acronym for the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations that includes Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Brunei.

Against China's regional approach, the US is "notoriously bilateral, and almost gratuitously so in Southeast Asia," Dalpino said, adding that the fact that US officials won't be attending the first East Asia Summit, scheduled for December 14 in Kuala Lumpur, underscores US alienation from the region.

Besides the ASEAN bloc, China, South Korea and Japan are members of the 16-nation summit - the world's newest grouping - with India, New Zealand and Australia attending as newly accepted members.

By making Southeast Asia a "second front" in its global "war on terror", the Bush administration has signalled that "we care less about other areas of policy", Dalpino said, addressing a forum on China and Southeast Asia sponsored by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA.

Minxin Pei, director of the China Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, agrees that the US "has ceded the region to China's initiative".

He said US military policies following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks have played a significant role in the estrangement. But he dated the problem back to the Asian financial crisis of 1997 and 1998, when the Clinton administration used its influence on the International Monetary Fund to impose solutions on Asian countries that supported US economic goals in the region.

During the crisis, "the US showed to the East Asian countries it really did not care about them", he said.

Conversely, the Asian crisis was a turning point for China's ties with the broader Asian region, said Ren Xiao, director of the Asia-Pacific Studies Department at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies.

After decades of estrangement during the Cold War, China and ASEAN began mending fences by the early 1990s. Since then, their "mutual needs" for economic and military security "have been the driving force behind the relationship", said Ren.

By the mid-1990s China had become a charter member of the ASEAN Regional Forum, an influential discussion group where military officials from around the region meet to discuss missile defence, piracy and other security issues.

But the 1997 financial crisis was a watershed when China's decision not to revalue its currency "helped stabilize the regional economic order", said Ren. Shortly after that, China, Japan and South Korea began holding annual discussions with Southeast Asia under the '"SEAN-plus-three" formula. "It was here that the East Asian cooperation process started," he said.

In 1999, after the US and China reached an agreement on China's accession to the World Trade Organization, ASEAN governments began to worry about the impact of Sino-US trade relations on their region. As a result, China proposed a free trade agreement with Southeast Asia, the framework for which was signed in 2002.

Over the past three years, the SARS epidemic, the threat of piracy and the rapid increase in intra-regional trade have drawn China and Southeast Asia even closer. Those ties culminated in 2003, when China became the first nation outside the region to sign the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. Russia and Japan have since followed suit, but not the US, which has refused to sign because it objects to Myanmar's full membership in ASEAN.

China is now ASEAN's second-largest trading partner, and bilateral trade could reach US$200 billion by 2010, Ren predicted. Already, that trade has grown 40% since 2002, and had hit $106 billion in 2004.

China, Ren stressed, has built its ties with Southeast Asia out of altruism. "China's foreign policy way of thinking has much to do with its geographical location," he said. "That is to say, we must have a stable and peaceful neighboring area."

But Pei, the Carnegie scholar, suggested that China wants to preserve its big-power status and minimize US influence in the region. "China is very much afraid that the US would develop strategic alliance ties that would be used to contain China," he said. With Japan's influence in the region diminished, "China is indisputably the regional power as viewed by Southeast Asian countries."

However, Pei said the ASEAN countries don't want to be seen as satellites of China and are using their ties to Beijing "to convince other big powers to come in". That's why India has been so active in the region in recent years, he said.

In that context, added Dalpino, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's decision to skip an ASEAN meeting last July "was a big mistake". Pointing to the lack of US participation in this month's summit, Ren added that the Bush administration is "not interested in participating in this process right now".

The most recent official statement of US policy on Southeast Asia was in October, when Eric John, a deputy assistant secretary of state, was asked at a congressional briefing why the US won't be represented in Kuala Lumpur.

"It's a question we get all the time: what is our policy on the East Asia summit?" he replied. "Quite frankly, we haven't determined a policy because the East Asia summit, if you really look at it, is a black box. Nobody knows what the East Asia summit is other than leaders coming together."

Once the forum "begins to take form, we will study how we can engage", John said.

(Inter Press Service)

 

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