A US-China tug-of-war over Southeast Asian influence is proving to be a critical test for Washington’s “pivot” East as Beijing strengthens its economic and military clout in its own backyard.
Countries of ASEAN, one of the world’s fastest growing regions, are weighing up how to play their cards as the US plays catch-up with the Chinese juggernaut and tries to reassert itself in Asia.
Washington’s recent flurry of engagement with ASEAN states — from the Philippines and Thailand to Singapore and Vietnam — is a potential source of friction with China, especially as tempers flare over territorial disputes and the rapid Chinese military build-up in the resource-rich South China Sea.
However, with longstanding US alliances in the region and China’s client-state relationship with several members, the ASEAN bloc is unlikely to agree on issues involving the two superpowers at a meeting of their foreign ministers in Cambodia this week.
Individual interests are seen more likely to triumph over consensus at the meeting, which will also be attended by US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi (楊潔篪).
Some countries will be in a quandary about how to balance ties to get the best out of both of the big players, while others will seek to use the rivalry as an opportunity to extract leverage for economic or military advantage.
Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar, ASEAN’s poorest states, remain in China’s orbit as a result of no-strings loans, desperately needed infrastructure development, military support and floods of investment from Chinese firms.
Beijing also has close economic ties with Singapore and Malaysia and has been aggressively wooing Thailand — a major ally of Washington since World War II and the launch pad for its Vietnam War operations — offering loans and technology for a high-speed rail network, hundreds of university scholarships to Thai students and recently agreeing to supply Bangkok with 10,000 Chinese-language teachers.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of Chulalongkorn University’s Institute of Security and International Studies, said Thailand was a “pivot state” in ASEAN, traditionally close to Washington, but now hedging more towards China.
China’s strategy in Thailand and several other ASEAN countries was not just trade and investment, but building close relationships to serve its long-term strategic interests.
“China is already engaged all over Southeast Asia ... they’re the resident superpower here,” Thitinan said. “It’s China’s stealth power that we’ve not seen, it’s not spoken, it’s not aggressive. China can put a lot more in and doesn’t need something out of it right away.”
US MILITARY POWER
After largely shunning ASEAN under former US president George W. Bush’s administration, the US may fear it is lagging behind as China taps ASEAN’s growth. Some analysts say the new Asian strategy is as much about trying to dispel the notion that Washington’s economic clout is shrinking as China continues to boom.
The obvious signs of renewed US engagement have so far been military-led, with US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta visiting the region last month to announce plans to base 60 percent of US warships in the Asia-Pacific by 2020, allowing the US “to be agile, to be quickly deployable, to be flexible.”
Part of that would be the use of ports in the Philippines, Vietnam and possibly Singapore, in exchange for training and technical support. The US is also seeking to set up a humanitarian response center at a former Vietnam War-era base in U-Tapao in Thailand. Washington’s charm offensive in the region has emboldened Vietnam and the Philippines, which have taunted China with renewed claims to sovereignty in the South China Sea and prompted talk of possible requests for the deployment of US spy planes there.