Chinese-US Thinking on the “ASEAN Pivot”


2012-12-18 by Richard Weitz

In several comprehensive dialogue sessions on China-U.S. relations held at the Chinese Embassy and various Washington think tanks, several themes emerged, focused primarily on the Southeast countries of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

According to U.S. officials, their Chinese counterparts are communicating two messages — and are perhaps genuinely divided in their assessments — about the Obama administration’s Asia Pivot. They are telling Western countries that they consider the Obama administration’s strategic rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific region as hostile and as an attempt to encircle Beijing.

On the other hand, they are telling Southeast Asian countries not to count on a long-term augmented U.S. presence in the region because the Obama administration is distracted by domestic priorities, is hobbled by U.S. financial problems, and will be constantly and invariably distracted by developments in the Middle East.

ASEAN remains a weak institution.

Unless there is a strong country in the annually rotating chair, the association will not be accomplish much. This problem was particularly evident this year under Cambodia, whose weak leadership and Beijing-tilting policies prevented the association from adopting a strong stand on maritime sovereignty issues. But sometimes the United States benefits from having a weak leader, as seen in how a Vietnam-Philippines axis this year blocked ASEAN from adopting a sovereignty declaration sought by Beijing.

For now, if the United States wants to achieve major initiatives in the region, it must do so through its bilateral alliances and partnerships or through less formal multilateral coalitions of the willing.

Trying to link ASEAN to region-wide Asia initiatives is even harder given the sharp differences between Southeast Asia, Northeast Asia, the South Pacific, Central Asia, and the Indian Ocean regions. Progress is possible at the working level within ASEAN, however, as seen in the under-the-radar projects against, for example, biological proliferation.

The Chinese competition with the United States is heating up in the Pacific. The Chinese approach to competition with the United States really is based on the game of go, where presence and eroding the adversary’s strength is the objective, not blowing them up. Credit Image: Bigstock

The United States would benefit from having a stronger ASEAN, partly to balance China, and partly to help deemphasize a bipolar China-US confrontation in the region. U.S. officials are striving to increase ASEAN’s capacity, through a combination of bilateral and multilateral initiatives, in various areas ranging from traditional defense capabilities, maritime coast guard agencies, disaster relief, and others. The hope is that augmented capacity in one area could be applied in others.

The United States also benefits from the myth of ASEAN strength, since the association’s principles are widely congruent with those of our own — peaceful resolution of disputes, open and transparent relations and policies, etc.

ASEAN governments continue to debate the extent to which they want to focus on internal development versus engagement with external powers, though for now ASEAN is still a developing institution that is open to outside influence.

China has long sought to shape ASEAN’s evolution.

More recently, the United States has stepped up its own efforts. But India, Japan, and Russia also can have a great influence on ASEAN’s development in coming years. ASEAN foreign ministries are no longer the clearly dominant institution, so it is important to work with other agencies and institutions even in bilateral engagement with ASEAN countries.

President Barack Obama has clearly resolved to make Asia his priority region.

He sees himself as Americans’ first Asian President and has, like his other senior national security team, spent more time in East Asia than in any other region.

In Europe and the Middle East, he expects U.S. allies and partners to assume more of the burden of sustaining regional security, such as by strengthening their local defense capabilities and by assuming a more prominent diplomatic role in addressing regional developments such as domestic political transitions and regional economic recovery.

In fact, Obama seeks to encourage Asian countries, above all China but also Japan and South Korea, to apply their resources to promote peace and development in other regions — hence his efforts to make the U.S. alliances in Japan and South Korea have a more global focus.

He especially believes he needs China’s support to deal with the world’s most serious problems –including the domestic challenges of making the U.S. economy more competitive internationally as well as the challenges from global climate change and WMD proliferation.

With respect to the latter, there are clear differences between how China and the United States deal with proliferation problems.

The Chinese insist that their nonproliferation policies towards Iran and North Korea are close to those of the United States. Like Washington, they say, Beijing supports a “dual-track” policy of sanctions and diplomacy, with the hope that a combination of such sticks and carrots would induce both Tehran and Pyongyang to curtail the proliferation-sensitive activities.

It is true that China has joined a number of non-proliferation treaties and institutions as well as adopted an expanding range of export controls that in principle limiting the sale of technologies that could potentially contribute to WMD proliferation.

In their declaratory policies, Chinese policy makers also emphasize their desire to achieve mutually beneficial “win-win” outcomes that advance both Chinese and U.S. interests.

Nonetheless, China has joined with Russia in leading international opposition against imposing rigorous sanctions on Iran, North Korea, and other countries that have violated their nonproliferation commitments. In Iran and North Korea, Chinese companies have exploited the WMD-related penalties imposed by the UN and Western governments by backfilling for other departing foreign firms.

Unlike Moscow, China refuses to support let alone join the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative, which seeks to curtail the illicit spread of WMD, their technologies and materials, and their means of delivery.

Although Chinese leaders have warned Tehran and Pyongyang against acquiring nuclear weapons, Chinese policy makers have stressed the value of engagement rather than punishment of these proliferation-threatening regimes. Fundamentally, Chinese officials want to see changes in these countries’ policies rather than in their regimes, which are the roots of their alienation from the international community and their pursuit of WMDs.

Finally, more than Americans, Chinese officials worry about the “rising power problem” — that China’s growing economic and military potential would trigger a U.S. response that would lead to a confrontation between these rising and currently dominant global powers.

Chinese diplomats stress that, through dialogue and cooperation, Americans and Chinese can overcome distrust and deal with the power transition problem.

Several factors also make a deliberate war between China and the United States not the most likely outcome of the competition. First, unlike during the U.S. confrontations with NAZI Germany and the Soviet Union, the China-U.S. rivalry lacks an ideological dimension.

Second, globalization has created deeper and wider economic ties between China and the United States than have ever existed in modern history between a rising and the established power.

A war would drive them and the rest of the world economy into a global depression. The causes of conflict between the United States and China are limited and, in the aggregate, both countries can gain more through cooperation than through competition.

Finally, both countries have nuclear weapons. They know that any military confrontation between them therefore risks escalating into a global nuclear war –bringing mutual assured destruction as well as mutually assured depression.

Yet, U.S. officials are rightful concerned about the implications of the growth of China’s power for the regional and overall balance of power and the effectiveness of U.S.-backed institutions.

Historically, it is often difficult for established powers to accommodate a rising power. The lack of Chinese political and security transparency further complicates this global power transition by deepening uncertainties regarding Beijing’s goals and means.

Above all, it remains unclear how committed Chinese leaders will be to maintaining freedom of access to the global commons.

Many Chinese leaders appear to have a 19th-century exclusionary view of national sovereignty in a 21st -century world, where leaders accept they must sacrifice some of their national freedom of action for the greater common goods of international peace and prosperity.

Editor’s Note: It should be understood that the Chinese approach to competition with the United States really is based on the game of go, where presence and eroding the adversary’s strength is the objective, not blowing them up.