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Keeping Southeast Asia Peaceful

Can the United States Keep China at Bay?
26 July 2010

by Daniel Michaeli

Southeast Asians want the United States active and engaged in the region, and the U.S. is clearly trying to deliver. But Southeast Asian countries cannot hope to receive full U.S. support in the South China Sea until they resolve ongoing disputes among themselves.

This burst of U.S. activity in Southeast Asia is, in part, a response to China’s recent assertiveness, particularly in the maritime space (more on that here). Southeast Asians hope drawing the United States more deeply into the region can help balance China’s heft in multilateral organizations and deter China from using force to resolve territorial disputes, even as Southeast Asians beef up their own defense capabilities.

Map of the South China Sea (1988). (Source: University of Texas Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection)

The United States is keen to engage. The U.S. secretaries of state and defense arrived in Southeast Asia last week, working to deepen American ties with Indonesia and Vietnam; Secretary Clinton said the United States has an interest in preventing the use–or threat–of force in China’s territorial disputes in the South China sea; Indonesia announced that the United States would be “invited” to (i.e., has agreed to) join the East Asia Summit (EAS), a hitherto useless organization of East and Southeast Asian countries; Sen. John Kerry released a road map for developing the U.S.-Vietnam relationship; and preparations are already under way for President Obama’s expected visit in November.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) attempts to present a united Southeast Asian front to China, preventing China from taking advantage of the weaknesses of individual ASEAN states. And for a while, this worked: China agreed in 2002 to a code of conduct in the South China Sea, and China generally treated ASEAN as a cohesive unit, even on territorial matters. Secretary Clinton’s announcement last week that China’s maritime disputes is “a leading diplomatic priority” took place at an ASEAN Regional Forum meeting.

But China is no longer taking ASEAN seriously on security matters. China negotiates bilaterally on maritime disputes and even has bypassed ASEAN entirely, forming a China-Japan-Korea “Plus Three” bloc, to discuss key economic matters. The motley crew of Southeast Asians makes this all easy for China through their own public disagreements, including over the same territorial disputes.

ASEAN members have a combined population of 580 million people, more than four times the population of Japan and twelve times the population of Korea. If Southeast Asians worked together effectively–if, for example, they joined East Asia Summit meetings with just one ASEAN representative who could speak for Southeast Asia–China would have no choice but to work with Southeast Asia as a whole.

An East Asia Summit could actually accomplish something with this membership list: the United States, Japan, India, Australia, China, Korea, Russia, and Southeast Asia. Each member would bring serious capacity and a meaningful agenda to summit meetings.

When Southeast Asian countries cannot even agree amongst themselves on territorial matters, the chance of actually resolving these multilateral territorial disputes is small, and the United States can never really defend any particular position diplomatically–or militarily. If Southeast Asians hope the U.S. Navy will guarantee stability in the South China Sea, they need to give the U.S. something to work with: a common ASEAN position on the Spratly and Paracel islands.

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One Comment »

  • Emil said:

    Hello, I found your article very interesting. I also have a geopolitics blog and have written an article on the same topic. You have much more articles than me, i just can’t find the time to write. Keep up the good work and get in touch if you want. It would be nice to hear from a more experienced blogger. Thanks!