Why Southeast Asia is turning from US to
China By Tim
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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."
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.
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.