Faltering US efforts to forge a united front with less powerful Asian countries in the face of an increasingly assertive China have resumed in earnest on Monday with US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s visit to Indonesia, a leading light of the 10-member ASEAN and the world’s most populous majority Muslim country. However, Clinton’s arrival in Jakarta was overshadowed by claims that US President Barack Obama’s administration is ignoring worsening political and human rights abuses in its haste to lock Indonesia and states such as Malaysia and Singapore into its 21st-century Asia-Pacific strategic vision in which China is strong, but constrained.
In Washington’s favored scenario, China becomes a sort of Gulliver-style giant held down and tied in place by feisty multitudes of tiny Lilliputians. What the state department may have forgotten is that, in Jonathan Swift’s tale, Gulliver and his undersized captors reach an uneasy accommodation, then fall out violently. To the US’ dismay, the last ASEAN summit, held in Phnom Penh in July, ended in unprecedented confusion after member governments failed to agree a final communique. US allies the Philippines and Vietnam wanted to insert a reference to China’s attempts to assert ownership over disputed, possibly oil-rich island territories in the South China Sea.
However, others were less ready to beard the Beijing behemoth. Cambodia, which hosted the meeting and is heavily dependent on Chinese aid and investment, blocked the proposed text. Now attention is switching to the next ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh in November. During a meeting in the Cook Islands on Friday last week with leaders of South Pacific island nations, Clinton pledged to continue helping to maintain security in the region and to protect the flow of maritime commerce. She also called on China to “act in a fair and transparent way” in the Pacific, the Wall Street Journal reported.
“We want them [China] to play a positive role in navigation and maritime security issues,” she said. “We want to see them contribute to sustainable development for the people of the Pacific, to protect the precious environment, including the ocean, and to pursue economic activity that will benefit the people.”
Some progress has been made on an agreement between ASEAN and China on a “code of conduct” for managing territorial disputes before they become flashpoints. However, Beijing continues to want to deal with such issues bilaterally, while the US believes the ASEAN countries will be more able to stand up for themselves if they act collectively in multilateral forums.
“The most important thing is that we end up in a diplomatic process where these issues are addressed in a strong diplomatic conversation between a unified ASEAN and China rather than through any kind of coercion,” a senior Clinton official said.
US involvement (many in China prefer to call it meddling) has deepened since Obama decided last year to switch attention and resources to the Asia-Pacific region as US commitments in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Europe ebbed.
In controversial remarks made in Vietnam two years ago, Clinton said freedom of navigation in the South China Sea was a US “national interest.”
Clinton has made numerous visits to the region since then. Later this week she will travel to Beijing to raise her concerns directly with China’s leaders. She will also visit Brunei, another ASEAN member. The US has formal defense arrangements with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand and Australia, and close security partnerships with Taiwan, Singapore and Indonesia. The latter is valued as a Muslim, pro-Western business partner and an important counter-terrorism ally. Obama also announced new deployments and facilities in the Philippines and Australia. The other main areas of potential confrontation with China are the East China Sea, where Japan is embroiled in long-running disputes, and Taiwan.