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The United States and ASEAN-China Relations: All Quiet on the Southeast Asian Front

Authored by Dr. Ian Storey. | October 2007

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SUMMARY

While the overall security situation in Southeast Asia is something of a mixed bag with grounds for both optimism and pessimism, one of the most encouraging trends in recent years has been the development of the Association for Southeast Asian Nation?s (ASEAN) relations with major external powers. Relations between China and ASEAN in particular have demonstrated a marked improvement over the past decade, thanks to a combination of burgeoning economic ties, perceptions of China as a more constructive and responsible player in regional politics, and Beijing?s ?charm offensive? toward Southeast Asia. Overall, the development of ASEAN-China relations poses few security challenges to the United States: Good relations between China and ASEAN enhance regional stability, and a stable Southeast Asia is clearly in America?s interests, especially with Washington focused on events in the Middle East. Although ASEAN-China relations are very positive, this does not necessarily mean the United States is losing influence in Southeast Asia, or that ASEAN members are ?bandwagoning? with China. In fact, they are hedging by keeping America engaged and facilitating a continued U.S. military presence. While ASEAN-China relations are relatively benign today, several sources of potential friction could create problems in Sino-U.S. relations: these are Taiwan, Burma, and the South China Sea dispute. This monograph examines each of these scenarios in turn.

INTRODUCTION

The purpose of this monograph is twofold. First, to provide a brief overview of the development of relations between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)1 and the People?s Republic of China (PRC); and, second, to explore the implications for the United States and, in particular, identify the potential security challenges which might arise from this relationship.

Depending on one?s perspective, Southeast Asia in the early 21st century is either a glass half full or a glass half empty. The glass is half full in the sense that for the majority of countries in Southeast Asia, these are relatively stable, peaceful, and prosperous times. The economies of the region have either recovered fully, or are well on their way to full recovery, from the disastrous 1997-98 Asian Financial Crisis. Singapore and Malaysia have registered strong economic growth, while Vietnam has become the darling of foreign investors, and in 2006 its gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate was second only to the PRC in Asia. Indonesia and the Philippines are experiencing good levels of growth (5-6 percent), while even Laos and Cambodia are achieving respectable levels of GDP growth. At the political level, the region has witnessed smooth leadership transitions in several countries (Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam) and, most importantly, democracy is being consolidated in Indonesia, Southeast Asia?s largest, and arguably most important, country. Indonesia is also witnessing perhaps the world?s most successful peace process in Aceh. At the security level, although territorial disputes continue to simmer, there is no danger that any of these will result in outright conflict. Indeed the chance of interstate conflict between the ASEAN states is almost (but not entirely) unthinkable. Transnational terrorist networks such as Jemaah Islamiyah have been disrupted (but not destroyed); piracy attacks are down thanks partly to the cooperative efforts of Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia; and in the Philippines, there are cautious grounds for optimism that a peace deal for Mindanao can be concluded in 2007. At the corporate level, ASEAN has embraced a vision for the future?the ASEAN Community 2015?and efforts are underway to frame a charter for the next ASEAN summit in November 2007 which will give the organization legal underpinnings for the first time ever.

However, these developments do not mean that this observer has adopted a pollyannaish view of Southeast Asia. The glass is half empty in the sense that the region faces a host of serious security challenges, particularly transnational threats such as terrorism; communal and sectarian violence; and illegal trafficking in drugs, small arms, and people. Politically, the September 19, 2006, coup in Thailand, and continued rumors of coups in the Philippines, underscored the fragility of democratic institutions in Southeast Asia. Except for one or two countries, poor governance?corruption, lack of transparency and accountability, political instability, absence of rule of law, and ineffective government?remains widespread across the region. And while Aceh is a success story, the level of violence in Southern Thailand is escalating at an alarming rate.2 Moreover, some countries in Southeast Asia show characteristics of near-state failure, with Burma being the leading example. And while ASEAN has adopted a clear blueprint for the future, it remains to be seen whether the radical proposals suggested at the ASEAN Summit in Cebu, the Philippines, in January 2007, will survive the negotiations and expected opposition from newer members such as Burma.

One area where optimism is well-founded is ASEAN?s relations with major external powers such as the United States, China, Japan, and India. Relations between ASEAN and these countries have arguably never been better, particularly at the government-togovernment level. ASEAN as a group conducts regular meetings and summits with its external partners, and several?including China, Japan, and India?have already acceded to the 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) which is basically a code of conduct that governs relations among the ASEAN states and external powers. ASEAN remains in the driver?s seat in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), and East Asia Summit (EAS) processes. Trade between the ASEAN states and China, Japan, and the United States is booming, and free trade negotiations between the member states and these countries will likely bolster this trend. At the security level, there is unprecedented cooperation between the ASEAN members and extraregional powers, particularly over transnational security threats.

As both sides are happy to concede, relations between ASEAN and the PRC are at an historic high.3 Trade and investment ties are booming, and the PRC is widely perceived in Southeast Asia as the Asian growth engine that is largely responsible for helping the ASEAN economies recover from the 1997 economic crisis. The two sides have concluded a raft of agreements, developed a roadmap for future relations, and relegated formerly contentious security issues to the backburner. Overall, the burgeoning relationship between ASEAN and China is, I would aver, good news for the United States. The United States has a vested interest in a peaceful, stable, and prosperous Southeast Asia. It allows the United States to focus on more pressing issues in the Middle East (Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran?s nuclear ambitions) and Northeast Asia. Indeed, the security dynamics in Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia are very different. Whereas in Northeast Asia the major security issues stem from bilateral disputes and rivalries (i.e., North and South Korea, China and Taiwan, China and Japan), in Southeast Asia security issues are largely internal in nature (separatism, insurgency, and terrorism). By and large, these are not issues that create severe tensions between Southeast Asian states and external powers, and, on the contrary, they have engendered good cooperation.

There are, in my view, few potential challenges for the United States vis-à-vis improved ASEAN-China relations, at least in the short-to-medium term. Although China?s economic, political, and even military profile has been rising in Southeast Asia for more than a decade, this does not mean that the ASEAN states have lost interest in the United States, or that the PRC is on the cusp of becoming Southeast Asia?s regional hegemon. Southeast Asian countries value the United States as a trade and investment partner and, perhaps more importantly, still view it as Asia?s key off-shore balancer.

However, although the overall picture for America is benign vis-à-vis ASEAN-China relations, it is possible to identify several potential challenges which may emerge in the future. Three possible scenarios are identified. First, if conflict erupts in the Taiwan Strait and the United States becomes involved, the various positions the ASEAN states adopt might complicate U.S. military operations and strain bilateral relations. Second, if political unrest in Burma breaks out and pro-democracy forces call on the United States and other Western countries to intervene, this would create a crisis in Sino-U.S. relations. The third, and least likely scenario, posits what position the United States might take if the PRC were to adopt a more aggressive stance in the South China Sea dispute.

ENDNOTES

1.ASEAN was formed in August 1967 by five countries? Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines. Brunei joined in January 1984 on independence, and in August 1995, Vietnam acceded to the organization. Burma and Laos joined in July 1997, and Cambodia in April 1999. Southeast Asia?s newest country, East Timor, which became a sovereign state in May 2002, has applied for membership and is likely to join before 2010.

2. See Ian Storey, ?2007 Marks the Key Year in Thailand?s Southern Insurgency,? Terrorism Monitor, Vol. 5, Issue 2, February 1, 2007.

3.See Ian Storey, ?China-ASEAN Summit: Beijing?s Charm Offensive Continues,? China Brief, Vol. 6, Issue 23, November 23, 2006.