Obama must find ways to enhance Asean unity amid growing tensions over South China Sea

James Wertsch, Shen Dingli and Swaran Singh say the US should use the Asean summit in California to re-emphasise the association’s strengths in maintaining regional peace and stability

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 February, 2016, 2:03pm
UPDATED : Friday, 20 May, 2016, 1:59pm

After the Asean-China and Asean-India summits in Beijing and New Delhi in 2006 and 2012 respectively, the US next week hosts the third “out-of-region” Asean summit at the historic Annenberg Estate in Sunnylands, California.

But, if US Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent preparatory trips to Laos (the current Asean chair), Cambodia and China are anything to go by, America’s attempts to showcase “Asean unity” by exploring a consensus on the South China Sea have only revealed the growing fissures within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations while pushing the US and China into a spiral of political polemics.

READ MORE: What the US can (and can’t) do to keep Asean united

Ever since US President Barack Obama announced, at the 27th Asean Summit in Kuala Lumpur last November, that he would host the summit, it has been the subject of speculation. Some see it as part of his wooing Asean as partners in the US “pivot” to Asia; others see it as part of his larger goal of building a lasting legacy as the “first Pacific president”. Also raising expectations is the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin will host his own Asean summit in Sochi in May.

Asean was formed in 1967 to promote regional stability, greatly encouraged by the US to contain the spread of communism. It evolved into Asia’s most effective multilateral forum, and launched several Asean-centric gatherings such as Asean+3 (with China, Japan and South Korea), the Asean Regional Forum (involving Asean plus 17 other states from all over the world) and the East Asia Summit (Asean plus eight major powers). Through a consensus, Asean was “in the driver’s seat” and was thus expected to resolve regional issues without hurting the core interests of major powers. But China’s rise since the 1990s and sporadic US-China contestations have gradually eroded the original Asean lustre.

READ MORE: California, here we come: date set for first-ever Asean summit hosted by a US president

Member nations’ divergent perspectives on the South China Sea also explain this erosion of Asean unity. A few members have tried engaging India as a counterweight to China, but New Delhi has remained reticent. Meanwhile, Beijing’s prompt help during the Asian financial crisis opened the floodgates of China’s economic engagement, strengthening its leverage. This coincided with the expansion of Asean – Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam joined the group – further complicating Asean “collective” will. The US and India felt like losers and viewed China’s rising influence as contrary to their interests. India experienced difficulty becoming a founding member of the East Asia Summit while US entry was delayed by five years, raising questions about Asean neutrality.

Today, while encouraging India to shift from a “Look East” to an “Act East” policy, the Obama administration has sought to reinforce the centrality of Asean in Asian deliberations. This also implies the US reasserting itself as the resident power in Asia, with its half a century of intense involvement in ensuring peace and stability for its regional friends and allies that now include India.

A less united Asean means the US, Japan and India are emerging as the new Asean+3

Each of these players has so far managed with hedging rather than confrontation, and Asean has provided the cushion for their occasional brandishing. This may not last forever. A less united Asean means the US, Japan and India are emerging as the new Asean+3. But such alienation will make China too powerful and independent a player, something Asean is meant to help avoid.

Obama’s vision weighs heavily towards deepening engagement with all Asian countries. This has already delivered outcomes like the successful conclusion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a historic climate agreement with China, new guidelines for the US-Japan alliance and a defence deal with the Philippines that gives US forces access to eight bases.

READ MORE: Asean creates ‘Community’ to enable free movement of trade, capital and professionals

But sporadic US-China sabre-rattling has triggered local responses, like outgoing Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou’s recent visit to Taiping Island, the Taipei-occupied island in the South China Sea, that even the US said was “most unhelpful”.

What does it mean for ensuring Asean efficacy? Why has the US lately become hyperactive on complex issues like the South China Sea? Is it feeling pressure to respond to the domestic rhetoric of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump?

Obama has made seven trips to East Asia in the last seven years. He will visit Japan in July and China, Laos and Vietnam in September to participate in the G7, G20 and East Asia summits. Only Western Europe has received similar indulgence. In this so-called “new normal”, the US knows Asean is no longer its bulwark in the region. Today, the grouping is seeking to remain relevant in the escalating face-off among major powers. The Obama administration would do better to focus on innovative ways to enhance, not showcase, Asean unity, perhaps by ensuring the centrality of the “Asean way” (that is, informal dialogue) in managing peace and security across Asia.

James Wertsch is vice-chancellor, international relations, at Washington University in St Louis. Shen Dingli is associate dean, Institute of International Studies, at Fudan University, Shanghai. Swaran Singh is professor of diplomacy and disarmament at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi