The US pivot to Asia has made Southeast Asia more volatile now that the region had become a “meeting point” of US and Chinese interests. In this regard, ASEAN could play a constructive role in preventing any unintentional escalations of tension, analysts said.
Ann Marie Murphy of Columbia University’s Weatherhead East Asian Institute, noted several factors that drove the US pivot to Asia, such as the economic importance of the region, US resources over-weighted in the Middle East but under-weighted in Asia, and China’s assertive maritime actions.
The shifting focus to Asia has pushed the US to renew its security arrangements. It is strengthening ties with allies and forging new partnerships with countries in the region. The US also plans to increase its naval presence to 60 percent, up by 10 percent, by 2020.
In Singapore, the US has deployed four ships, while in the Philippines, the US rotates 500 personnel as part of a new cooperation with Manila. It will also rotate 2,500 marines in Darwin.
“US and Chinese interests are coming into conflict in Southeast Asia; the US seeks freedom of navigation, which is coming into conflict with China’s sovereignty claims over the South China Sea,” Murphy said.
Katherine Morton of the Australian National University pointed out that the US pivot had created greater volatility in a Southeast Asia that is hostile to China. “It seems that the US is seeking to create an ‘Asian NATO’ to contain China in the same way it contained the Soviet Union during the Cold War,” Morton added.
The experts were speaking at a symposium entitled Intersection of Power, Politics and Conflict in Asia — jointly organized by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the Australian National University and the Weatherhead East Asian Institute — in Jakarta on Wednesday.
Morton argued that China had failed to assure other countries that the modernization of its navy was purely self-defensive.
Murphy said that China was increasingly using military power to assert its claims, as seen in the case of the Scarborough Shoal, which is claimed by both China and the Philippines. The two nations are among six claimants to waters and island groups in the South China Sea, home to busy maritime lanes, rich fishing grounds and a potential treasure trove of mineral resources.
The US, ally to the Philippines, is the only country who has the military capacity to stand up against China. “The Scarborough Shoal is a divergent point of US and Southeast Asian interests,” she said.
She underlined the need to make a strong attempt to establish some rules of the road, in particular for freedom of navigation, which is key among US interests. Most of the US-China disputes have been over US naval vessels moving through and conducting exercises in China’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
“Whether it comes out from the ASEAN-China code of conduct […] at least there is something to regulate the movement of ships to avoid unwanted conflict and an unintended escalation,” Murphy said, adding that it was the desire of all parties to avoid open hostilities.
Murphy hoped that a code of conduct (CoC) with provisions similar to what the US had with the Soviet Union, such as giving advance notification of where ships were traveling, would help to avoid an unwanted increase in tensions.
She said it remained unclear how to manage the conflicts over territorial disputes, noting that it was unclear whether there was political will on the part of China.
Murphy underlined the importance of political will from all sides to begin negotiations on a CoC, adding that she still believed in ASEAN assuming a prominent role. “Despite the difficult challenges, ASEAN has a constructive role to play in the region,” she acknowledged.