Regular US dialogue with Asean would be positive for Asia

The Americans see greater engagement with Asean and its 600 million people as of enormous benefit, as does China. A more flourishing Southeast Asia is good for the stability of the whole region

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 February, 2016, 10:50pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 March, 2016, 4:40pm

It may be trite to describe China as the elephant in the room during any discussion of the economic and security affairs of Asia in which it is not actually taking part. But it is true. So it is surprising that in their joint account of two days of summit talks in California last week, US President Barack Obama and the leaders of the 10 Asean nations did not mention China once – not even when referring to discussions on territorial disputes in the South China Sea, which was also not mentioned. In separate remarks Obama referred to both. But jointly the leaders confined themselves calling for a commitment to “peaceful resolution” of disputes and “the rights of freedom of navigation and overflight”.

The statement reflected the complexity of multilateral relationships in the region and the diversity of opinion within the organisation. It was clearly intended not to offend Beijing but, far from indicating a weakness in Asean, it reflects a strength and a force for regional stability so long as that diversity remains mutually respected. China reciprocated with a restrained response, saying that the development of a US-Asean relationship should be conducive to stability and development.

While the joint account doubtless also reflected disagreement between Asean members about how to handle disputes with China, the restraint is welcome amid rising tensions over maritime disputes. In fact the focus of the summit’s attention was economic. The US is looking to cement the latest step in its so-called pivot back to Asia – the signing of the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade agreement, accounting for 40 per cent of the global economy and including Asean members Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei, with Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand having also expressed interest in joining. The Americans, sensibly, see greater engagement with Asean and its 600 million people as of enormous benefit; China likewise. A more flourishing Southeast Asia is good for the stability of the whole region. Obama said the two sides made progress on trade and investment and had agreed to launch a new effort to help all Asean nations meet the criteria of the TPP deal. Not only was this the first stand-alone US-Asean summit on American soil, but Obama wants to institutionalise dialogue at this level. This will ultimately depend on his successor but, subject to respect for Asean’s neutrality, would be positive for greater stability in Asia. A neutral Asean provides a forum for dispute resolution. If this kind of dialogue can continue , and include China, it will contribute to stability and should be welcomed by both sides.