Opinion

Between ASEAN, China and
the United States

An article in Foreign Policy by Christian Caryl, provocatively titled “Panda-Hugger Hangover” (Foreign Policy, Aug. 4, 2010) caught my attention recently.  

The article discusses the recent increase in tension over the South China Sea due to China’s growing assertiveness and how this has pushed the ASEAN countries closer to Washington again after a period of cozying up to Beijing.

As the title in the article implies, Caryl dismissed all of the people who have argued about the peaceful rise of China, that China as a rising global power will not behave like traditional great powers which tend to throw their weight around and bully smaller countries, as basically naïve “panda-huggers”.

The article suggests that the 10-member ASEAN countries have been lulled for a while by China’s charm offensive during a period of US inattention when it was pre-occupied by events in the Middle East.

Now that China is no longer behaving so charmingly, ASEAN countries are again turning to embrace the US, and as Caryl wrote: “The Obama administration —  recognizing, perhaps that the United States hasn’t been paying enough attention to its interests in East Asia in recent years — seems ready to hug back”.  

The recent decision by Washington to lift the 12-year ban on Indonesia’s elite military unit, Kopassus, is seen as linked to renewed US security interests in Southeast Asia in view of China’s growing regional preponderance.

Caryl’s and other similar articles make for a very good read and they certainly tell parts of the story.

However, by painting a rather black and white picture of a seemingly zero-sum choice for ASEAN countries, either to be close to China or the US, they miss many of  regional nuances.

First, regarding China, very few if any in Southeast Asia can be classified as “panda-huggers”, a rather derogatory term often used by conservatives in the US for those who are uncritically pro-China.

For countries in Southeast Asia which have had centuries of experiencing the ups and downs of dealings with their giant neighbor, the image of a furry and cuddly animal is not one that comes to mind when looking at China.  

Southeast Asians were and continue to be fully aware of both the inherent promises and dangers that China present, whose traditional symbol is after all a dragon. During the Cold War, China was regarded as an unmitigated threat, today, however, ASEAN believes that the best course of dealing with China, with its vast economic potential and growing military might, is to engage and integrate it fully into the regional order.

A China whose prosperity and good international image is closely tied up to the wider region is considered to be good for both China and the neighborhood as a whole.

China for its part has formally committed itself to an ASEAN regional code of conduct by acceding to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) in Southeast Asia in 2003, which renounces threats and the use of force in settling disputes.

ASEAN clearly hopes that China will adhere to TAC and is undoubtedly disappointed, if not alarmed, with the recent display of military force in South China Sea.

The recent happening in South China Sea will likely to spur ASEAN states to pursue various steps to beef up their security, including by enhancing military cooperation with the US.

All these, however, would not change ASEAN’s conviction of the necessity to integrate China further into the wider regional community that ASEAN has been promoting, a multi-polar regional community in which China’s overwhelming power could be safely diffused.

Second, regarding the US, at times it seems it is just an occasional visitor to the region, whose interests wax and wane. ASEAN has long desired the US to accede to the TAC and is happy that Washington finally did so early in 2010.

As a Pacific power and now also a signatory of the TAC, the US is clearly entitled to remind every one of the agreement to renounce the threat and use of force in settling disputes, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did at the ASEAN Regional Forum meeting in Hanoi in July 2010.



China has committed to an ASEAN code of conduct by acceding to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in SE Asia, which renounces threats and use of force in settling disputes.
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This should not only apply to the South China Sea, but also to the various territorial disputes between ASEAN countries which at times have led to clashes.

ASEAN, a region of over 500 million people located astride strategic sea lanes of communication and with great economic potentials, would not wish only to be regarded as worthy of notice by Washington
if there is a perceived “China threat”.

ASEAN-US relations also have their own dynamics independent of China. For Jakarta, its interest in reestablishing military ties with the US had begun in the early 2000s as part of its effort to reform and transform the military into a professional force in a newly democratic Indonesia.

So where does that leave ASEAN? ASEAN is likely to continue to pursue its well-tested strategy to hope for the best and prepare for the worst through multiple hedging.

On the one hand, ASEAN will continue its idealist strategy of wider regional cooperation to promote confidence building measures with various regional powers, including China and the US.

On the other hand the ASEAN member states will also follow a realist strategy of self help, boosting security alliances and modernizing their defense capabilities, but only in as far as their economies would allow.

As for the perceived rivalry between China and the US in Southeast Asia, it adds some excitement, but ASEAN is well advised not to be caught in a tug of war which can divide the ASEAN member countries.

Strengthening ASEAN solidarity through the realization of the ASEAN Community and revitalizing the concept of a Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (Zopfan) in Southeast Asia would be the way forward.

ASEAN also needs to convince China to sign a formal code of conduct on South China Sea as envisaged by the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties (DOC) on the South China Sea already agreed upon in 2002.


The writer is research professor for Intermestic Affairs at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) and a visiting researcher at the CSEAS, Kyoto University, for March-August 2010.

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