Summit in US marks shift in wary region

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 24 September, 2010, 12:00am

A bruising year for China in East Asia is about to get even tougher.

Today's summit meeting between 10 Southeast Asian leaders and US President Barack Obama, the first such meeting in the US, will cement two trends increasingly evident in recent months - the region is determined to have the US around to balance China's rise, and Washington is finally fully awake to the potential in a region it has previously neglected.

The meeting also takes place against the backdrop of rising Sino-Japanese tensions over Tokyo's continued detention of a Chinese trawler captain who rammed two Japanese coast guard ships near the Diaoyu Islands.

Some in the wary region see those tensions as confirming a new era of assertiveness by Beijing.

Most worrying for Beijing is the fact the disputed South China Sea will be a key part of the agenda when Obama meets his counterparts from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on the fringes of the United Nations General Assembly in New York today.

As well as security issues, they will discuss greater economic co-operation and the creation of a formal strategic partnership - a relationship Asean has forged with both China and Japan during similar summits in recent years. A communique after the meeting is expected to reinforce the need for peaceful, multilateral solutions to the rival South China Sea claims by China and the Asean countries of Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei.

That statement will highlight just how the region's strategic balance has shifted in less than a year. Just 10 months ago, backroom pressure from Beijing was enough to keep the South China Sea off the Asean agenda, despite signs of growing tensions over the strategic waterway that links East Asia to Middle Eastern oil and European markets.

China instead started quietly insisting any claimants settle directly with Beijing - a move which played to China's rising strength. And despite rising Asean concern - and Obama's Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton declaring in late July that Washington wanted to foster multilateral solutions as a priority - that remains Beijing's official position.

But a year that has seen extensive People's Liberation Army exercises in the South China Sea, and Chinese vessels capturing hundreds of Vietnamese fishermen in disputed waters, has alarmed the region. Behind the scenes, a Chinese note to the UN appeared to confirm a sweeping Chinese claim to virtually the entire sea, while Chinese officials told US State Department and National Security Council officials that the sea was now a 'core interest' of Beijing - diplomatic code that puts it on par with Tibet and Taiwan in terms of sensitivity.

A chorus of concern from Asean leaders about a harder edge to China's diplomacy resonated with an Obama administration looking to re-engage the region.

Today's communique is expected to underscore the importance of a 2002 declaration signed between China and Asean that calls, among other peaceful gestures, for the creation of a legally binding code of conduct in the area. Keen observers of the Sino-US relationship said today's statement would push Beijing into a difficult position because it would confirm formal US involvement in what had been a regional issue.

'Beijing is very unhappy because it doesn't want its territorial disputes with some Southeast Asian countries to turn into a complicated and multilateral issue,' said Dr Richard Hu, director of international relations at the University of Hong Kong. 'Indeed, the joint statement will also send a message to the world that 'the US is formally back in Asia as well as back in the game - which aims at rebalancing China's influence in Southeast Asia'.'

Jia Qingguo, a professor at Peking University's school of international studies, said Beijing had long been ready to deal with Washington's long-term intervention in the Asia-Pacific region, but recent PLA actions may have played into US hands.

'We know the US is everywhere ... Maybe our current high-profile military demonstrations in the Yellow Sea, and the East and South China seas made our neighbours nervous, which provided the US the best opportunity to come back,' Jia said.

Another Peking University professor, Yu Wanli, said Beijing needed to clarify to the world its precise position on the 'core interest' remark, saying that no leader had used such a phrase in a speech or official document. 'Maybe it was a misinterpretation from the earlier meeting between Chinese and US officials in Beijing,' Yu said. 'I think Beijing needs to clarify its standpoint to the outside world.'

Both Hu and Yu said today's joint statement would not harm Sino-US or Sino-Asean ties. 'It's just a joint statement ... not a practical action to challenge and contain China,' Hu said.

Many envoys from countries large and small talk of China's 'premature overreach' in the past year, adding that Beijing would have been far more successful had it waited for another decade or so to play a tougher hand with East Asia, given its growing economic and military clout - and the relative decline of the US.

Ian Storey, a scholar at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, said there was a lot of talk that China would be 'recalibrating' its approach.

'We haven't seen any sign of it yet,' he said. 'Maybe the summit will be enough to produce just that kind of reaction. Certainly many countries want to show China that this is simply about balance, not about shutting China out ... everyone knows China is still very important to the future of Asean.'

China has grown to become Asean's biggest trading partner. While playing catch-up on trade, the US remains by far the biggest investor within Asean, with three times as much capital invested by US firms in Southeast Asia than across the whole of China.

The pressure is likely to remain on China for some time yet, however. Much of the push to drive the South China Sea issue has come from Vietnam in its year as chair of Asean. It is, after all, the only other country that claims all the Paracel and Spratly islands.

Soon it will pass the baton to Indonesia, the largest nation in Southeast Asia and one that has long voiced concerns about China's South China Sea claims.