China's ASEAN Invasion

May 1, 2007 Regions: Asia Tags: Asian CenturyDiplomacy

China's ASEAN Invasion

Mini Teaser: As long as the United States fails to understand what motivates Southeast Asian states, its influence will continue to diminish vis-à-vis China.

by Author(s): John Lee

PRESIDENT BUSH'S November 2006 visit to Singapore, Indonesia and Vietnam for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum was of enormous interest to Southeast Asians. It was a rare but excellent opportunity to discuss America's strategic role in the region-one, unfortunately, that was not taken. While there was a full agenda-fighting terrorism and disease, promoting economic freedom and human rights-the president failed to lay out a U.S. vision for regional security. And he seemed to ignore the reality of intensifying Southeast Asian security dilemmas and competition.

China, anticipating an "Asian century", does not underestimate the region's strategic importance-including the shipping lanes within the Malacca Straits and South China Sea. Moreover, it is clear that China's Southeast Asian ambitions exist at the expense of current and future American strategic influence. Behind all of this diplomacy lies a hardened but creative application of realist strategy.

While the United States remains ascendant in the region, it lacks the capacity to imagine strategic disaster. Americans think they hold nearly all the aces, because U.S. influence, maintained through a network of security partners, appears impregnable. As such, the American military presence is conspicuous, robust and generally welcome.

But America is becoming a careless and tired superpower. To most observers in Southeast Asia, the Chinese are out-thinking, out-enthusing and out-flanking America's more sedate and settled diplomatic efforts. While the United States remains the backbone of the region's security structure, China's flurry of diplomatic activity is gradually wearing down traditional Southeast Asian resistance to, and reasoning against, a rising China. Regional politics and the strategic balance are complicated, and the United States cannot simply revamp Asian alliances to face "unnamed over-the-horizon threats" (i.e., China).

America has been losing ground since the late 1990s, when China decided to charm rather than intimidate. The good news is that there is still time to re-engage Southeast Asian states at little cost. To do so, however, requires more adaptive and flexible thinking-and changing America's psychology remains the essential challenge.

Recent History

THE ASSOCIATION of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was stitched together during the height of the Cold War (in 1967) as a pact pledging the signatories-many of whom were facing domestic insurgencies-to "non-interference" in each other's affairs. The original signatories were the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. ASEAN was never intended as a genuine security community or even as a membership alliance. Instead, an ill-defined consensus approach to regional concerns took shape with loosely stated goals of promoting regional economic growth, political stability, social progress, and cultural development and understanding. Nevertheless, in the words of former Indonesian Foreign Minister, Ali Alatas: "The truth is that politics attended ASEAN at its birth." Interstate rivalries existed and other countries could exploit internal threats to the association. Its principles of respecting sovereignty and renouncing the use of force played an important reassuring role for these fledging countries and regimes.

The fledgling five founding members had concerns about internal Communist-led revolutionary movements and felt vulnerable to Soviet and Chinese activity in the region. Consequently, ASEAN received strong U.S. support, which helped stabilize and restrain interstate rivalries and provided security against Soviet and Chinese interference. When the Cold War ended, the United States lost strategic interest in the region. Unsurprisingly, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of Cold War-era proxy wars, many predicted ASEAN's demise. Great-power interest waned and some predicted the re-emergence of unsettled rivalries between member states.

But the rise of China, in particular, spurred the organization's revival in the mid-1990s. Even though the collective military might the group could project was never that formidable, the appearance of unity proved effective against China following various incidents in the South China Sea.

A continued U.S. presence was crucial to holding Chinese ambitions in check while stabilizing ASEAN rivalries, planting the seeds of American complacency. The United States need not re-think and re-sell a vision of why its continued engagement in the region served the interests of Southeast Asian states. During the 1990s there was often a lack of any genuine appreciation of the vital interests of both sides. And the best American strategic minds were focused on other regions.

This meant that peripheral issues in Southeast Asia, like personal spats (most notably between then-Vice President Gore and Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir over the latter's imprisonment of Malaysian deputy leader Anwar in 1998), received almost as much attention as strategic issues.

September 11 brought renewed American interest in Southeast Asia, to the extent that the region was seen as a second front in the War on Terror. Of particular concern were radical Islamic groups operating in Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia. The United States moved quickly to enhance military cooperation with those countries and renew links with Singapore-even though the United States still had human-rights concerns.

But America did little with respect to the question of China. If anything, terrorism pushed strategic questions further into the background. In the most abstract form, the "expansion of freedom and opportunity in this vital part of the world" defined American interests, as President Bush declared in a radio address marking his November 2006 trip to Southeast Asia. At the ground level, encouraging economic prosperity through free trade and other forms of economic cooperation took the guise of a "strategy" under the umbrella of fighting the War on Terror.

In reality, beyond tactical cooperation in counter-terrorism and the reinvigoration of existing military ties, superficial U.S. thinking offered little else-much less strategic consideration of China's rise. Instead, a blunt liberal-democratic logic prevailed: Regional prosperity would mean continued support for the liberal-democratic order backed by American power and hegemony. This would, in turn, bolster regional support for the United States as the leader in the War on Terror and strengthen America's credentials as ASEAN's preferred security partner.

But any talk about a Southeast Asian trend toward serious regional security cooperation remains more myth than reality.

Indeed, member states have consistently rejected plans to transform ASEAN into a security alliance, preferring talk of a "security community" of common values and principles. Even "security community" is an overstatement-they merely seek a peaceful setting for dispute management. As Greg Sheridan recently noted in these pages, these states do not seriously entertain notions of postmodern, trans-state associations. There remain significant rivalries and disputes among members, and the organization is far from a "regional bloc", much less a "security community" of any sort.

Yet Southeast Asian states should not be underestimated in terms of strategic creativity. Although realists normally put forward balancing and bandwagoning as the only strategies available to smaller states, Southeast Asian nations have historically employed "counter-dominance" vis-à-vis great powers and "counter-interference" vis-à-vis each other. The mid-1990s revival of ASEAN as a counter-dominance strategy (led mainly by Malaysia) has shaped modern politics in the region. The purpose and general effectiveness of the strategy can be seen in several ways.

For example, though ASEAN has played only a consultative role in security matters, forums such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) draw in and maintain U.S. involvement in the region and engage the Chinese. The Malaysians were arguably the first to see this possibility of using ASEAN as part of a counter-dominance strategy. This explains why Malaysia spent so much energy wooing China to engage with ASEAN and promoting China's self-proclaimed "peaceful development" to other ASEAN members. It also explains why, on the one hand, ASEAN states are wary of allowing the United States to use the organization to "encircle" China, yet on the other hand, put forward ARF-in which America is a participant-as the preferred political and security forum in the region. The Joint Vision on the ASEAN-U.S. Enhanced Partnership affirmed this in November 2005.

Essentially, ASEAN engaged the United States, Japan and China in a framework that leverages its members' influence. The tendency for member states to emphasize ASEAN, and not the summits that ASEAN members are party to, (such as the 2006 East Asian Summit) must be seen in this light.

ASEAN additionally defines security concepts and processes that in reality underpin a counter-dominance strategy. For example, it is hard to rebuff something called the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC)-in actuality a mutual non-intervention agreement.

Third, ASEAN provides a forum and context through which member states jostle for power and influence without destabilizing relations between themselves. Indonesia was, prior to the Asian financial crisis in 1997, the commonly acknowledged leader in the region. Since then, the struggle for influence has gained pace, especially between Indonesia and Malaysia.

Arguments over whom to invite and exclude from the inaugural East Asian Summit (EAS) gives us a taste of Southeast Asian power politics. Malaysia wanted to exclude Australia, but Singapore and Thailand launched a strong counter-campaign; to them, Australia would balance Malaysian influence. In the final compromise, participants were asked to sign the TAC (Australia acquiesced). Afterward, such jealousies were largely kept behind closed doors while all participants carefully stage-managed optimism about Southeast Asian regionalism.

Finally, security is a much more comprehensive notion for Southeast Asian states than it is for Western ones, which tend to differentiate between domestic and international security. Security for Asian states includes internal social stability and even "regime security." Americans, who see it as a matter of moral and intellectual principle to separate the two, often fail to accept this. Nevertheless, it is the primary logic of Southeast Asia linking "comprehensive security" with so-called "Asian values" and rejection of Western notions of individual and political rights. It is therefore not surprising that the security community that arose out of the ninth ASEAN Summit in Bali in 2003 adopted the notion of comprehensive security as the guiding concept. This "comprehensive security" included "broad political, economic, social and cultural dimensions."

Essay Types: Essay