US sincerity questioned in Southeast Asia
By Richard Javad Heydarian
MANILA - Shortly after China agreed to negotiate a binding code of conduct (CoC) to resolve simmering disputes in the South China Sea, the world's two leading powers held the fifth US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Washington. At that meeting, both sides committed to a significant broadening of their bilateral relations.
Members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), especially US strategic partners the Philippines and Vietnam, were among those who paid close attention to the tone and substance of the dialogue, hoping to glean insights into Washington's future commitment to anchor peace and stability in
East Asia. Vietnam President Truong Tan Sang will visit the White House later this week to sound out Washington about its security role in the region.
The US-China dialogue covered key bilateral issues, namely the promotion of an open and secure cyberspace, cooperation on the Korean Peninsula crisis, coordination on anti-proliferation efforts vis-a-vis Iran, how to achieve a political settlement in Syria, various bilateral trade concerns, and joint support for enhancing global energy security and development.
Crucially, the US also emphasized the importance of maintaining strong military-to-military contacts with China, with the July 9 Strategic Security Dialogue covering sensitive bilateral issues such as cyber and maritime security as well as nuclear and missile defense policy.
In order to enhance bilateral confidence building measures, the two sides agreed to pursue a notification mechanism for major military activities and address the establishment of mutually acceptable rules of behavior for air and maritime maneuvers.
Earlier China agreed to attend the 2014 Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) naval exercise to be held off Hawaii. RIMPAC is the world's largest maritime warfare exercise, led by the US Pacific Command and held biennially with top traditional allies.
Such developments matched US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's earlier hopes for peacefully accommodating China's legitimate interests and enhancing top-level bilateral military exchanges to ameliorate lingering tensions in the Western Pacific.
The "Snowden affair", leaks by a former Central Intelligence Agency contractor that have exposed the global scale of America's intelligence espionage of US citizens, foreign entities and even transatlantic allies, undermined Washington's ability to raise its earlier allegations of Chinese cyber-espionage against US interests. The theme dominated Hagel's speech in the Shangri-La Dialogue held in Singapore from May 31-June 2.
The summit was highlighted by an agreement to step up cooperation on addressing climate change. This was a particularly groundbreaking development since China and the US are responsible for more than 40% of global green house gas emissions and have historically shunned any binding commitment to mitigate climate change.
The tone of the dialogue was generally affable, with Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang going as far as cracking an awkward joke on how the US-China relationship is like a marriage, but one strictly between straight people - a play on the US's recent ruling to allow for gay marriages.
While the meeting underscored the centrality of bilateral relations, with many environmental activists and security experts applauding the international ramifications of the meeting's outcomes, US allies in Asia wondered about Washington's commitment to rein in China's rising territorial ambitions, particularly in the South China Sea.
For Southeast Asian countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam, there was a palpable lack of priority - especially on the part of the US - placed on the peaceful resolution of maritime disputes pitting weaker US allies against an increasingly powerful China.
While the US is expected to look beyond its East Asian strategic commitments when managing a bilateral relationship of global significance, America's allies have warily watched the deepening interdependence between Washington and Beijing on a wide host of international issues, which collectively have overshadowed their territorial disputes with China.
Adding to their worries, China has astutely leveraged America's continued dependence on cheap Chinese imports and the large-scale Chinese purchase of treasury bills to dampen Washington's military support for a host of Asian allies, from the Philippines to Taiwan to Japan.
Moreover, the US sees China's cooperation on North Korea and Iran as essential to its global anti-proliferation efforts, while China has also become an indispensable player in addressing Middle Eastern conflicts, including the unfolding crisis in Syria.
Beyond Washington's objective recognition of China's global importance, the personal dynamics between US president Barack Obama and Chinese president Xi Jingping has also given the relationship a boost. The two leaders get along well precisely because they have built their political capital on charismatic leadership and staked their legacies in espousing a global vision for their respective countries.
Obama's eagerness to find a sympathetic counterpart in Beijing was apparent in his decision to host a shirt-sleeved summit with Xi at the exclusive Sunnylands estate in California in early-June. Washington's hope was that by skipping formalities and agenda-driven meetings there would be a greater degree of openness and "personal touch."
Both sides were quick to herald the meeting as a success, with Xi saying the two sides had "reached an important consensus" on developing "a new type of relationship" that among other things will "improve and develop bilateral military ties and push forward the construction of a new type of military relations."
Typically such personalized arrangements are reserved for top US allies, from British Prime Minister David Cameron's 2012 intimate sojourns with Obama to former president George W Bush's Graceland meeting with Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi in 2006 after the latter's historic support for the US's so-called war on terror, including a prominent role in post-invasion Iraq.
Despite its genial exchanges with China's top leaders, the US has nevertheless sought to assuage its strategic Asian allies by rhetorically underscoring its commitment to an international law-based resolution of territorial disputes in the western Pacific.
"The United States does not take a position on competing territorial claims over land features, but we have a strong and long-standing interest in the manner in which disputes in the South China Sea are addressed and in the conduct of the parties," US Secretary of State John Kerry said at the ASEAN Regional Forum held early-July in Brunei. "[The US] calls on all parties to stop using coercion or other provocative actions to advance claims in the South China Sea."
Yet ASEAN - and its role in fostering an inclusive security architecture in the Asia-Pacific - was hardly mentioned in the US-China bilateral exchanges. In short, many saw the Obama-Xi pronouncements as underscoring how the two powers were - and see themselves as - the bedrock of the pan-regional order.
China's agreement at the ASEAN meeting to negotiate a CoC for the South China Sea was thus viewed by certain US regional allies as a clever maneuver to silence critics and strengthen the momentum for greater US-China co-dependence without addressing the rising militarization of the South China Sea disputes.
US treaty allies such as the Philippines have also been puzzled by the Obama administration's ambivalence towards its obligations under their 1951 mutual defense pact. Manila has wondered aloud whether an armed confrontation between China and the Philippines over disputed features in the South China Sea would provoke a counter-maneuver by the US.
For Manila, Washington's occasional expressions of discontent over China's territorial ambitions, especially since the China-Philippine standoff over the Scarborough Shoal in mid-2012 and current tensions over the Second Thomas Shoal, have not been matched with actual commitments on the ground.
Manila has consistently pushed for a greater US rotational troop presence, acquisition of sophisticated military hardware and large-scale joint military exercises. So far, US military assistance to the Philippines' decrepit armed forces has been confined to increased rotational visits, joint military exercises closer to disputed features in the South China Sea, sales of Vietnam War era warships and symbolic gestures of support for Manila's call for United Nations arbitration of its territorial disputes with China.
Despite a gradual increase in US military aid from US$50 million in 2003 to $178 million in 2013, the Philippines still receives much less from Washington than modernized militaries such as Egypt, which has consistently received up to $1 billion in annual American aid.
For Filipino strategists, the country is yet to establish even a minimum deterrence capability, while China (with the world's second-largest military budget) is set to double the level of its 2012 military spending by 2015 and upgrade its naval as well as anti-access/area denial capabilities.
Given the sheer asymmetry in power, the Philippines has relied not only on the US but also multilateral mechanisms such as ASEAN and United Nations arbitration to address disputes. Even for comparably more modernized armies such as Vietnam, ASEAN's role as the main platform for multilateral diplomatic negotiations and conflict management is indispensable.
Yet worries are mounting among concerned Southeast Asian countries that growing interdependence and diplomatic dynamism between the US and China could serve to downgrade the effectiveness of multilateral mechanisms and Washington's bilateral military commitments to weaker, strategically less significant, Asian allies.
Richard Javad Heydarian is a Manila-based foreign affairs analyst focusing on the South China Sea and international security issues. He is a lecturer at Ateneo De Manila University's (ADMU) Department of Political Science, and the author of the upcoming book From Arab Spring to Arab Summer: The Economic Roots and the Precarious Future of the Middle East Uprisings. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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