Communication and dialogue is the key to stability in Asia

The way the US is going about its regional diplomacy does little to diffuse tension

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 February, 2016, 11:19pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 March, 2016, 5:07pm

No sooner had the ink dried on the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership than President Barack Obama began to further consolidate his strategic legacy – the US pivot to Asia. His hosting of a special summit of the 10 Asean country leaders this coming week is symbolically and politically notable on a number of counts. It follows the declaration of the US-Asean relationship as a strategic partnership; it is the first standalone US-Asean summit on US soil; it is being held at the Californian resort of Sunnylands, the venue of an informal meeting between Obama and President Xi Jinping (習近平) in 2013 – all signals of Washington’s commitment to Asean and engagement in the Asia Pacific. In addition, four Asean nations are among 12 signatories to the TPP free-trade agreement, and three more have shown an interest in joining.

What the TPP and the summit have in common is that China is on the mind but not included. They are both responses to its growing regional influence. The TPP is a key plank of the US security and economic pivot to Asia and Washington is keen to promote Asean unity amid perceptions of Chinese territorial assertiveness in the South China Sea. Despite appearances, a US spokesman has insisted the summit is neither about China, nor anti-China. But less diplomatic sources have said Obama will deliver a message that disputes over the South China Sea must be resolved through global rules and not through “bullying” of smaller nations by larger ones.

This raises the question why not be more inclusive of China, which has its own security and economic concerns. After all, there is also room for the US to clarify its intentions, since directing warships into disputed waters to uphold freedom of navigation contributes to tension. The way the US is going about its regional diplomacy does little to diffuse that. Xi and Obama have agreed to build a new great-power relationship. The US should build a framework for reducing suspicion and misunderstanding with more communication and dialogue.