By Eric Teo Chu Cheow
President Hu Jintao's United States tour was a landmark visit, with pomp and ceremonies on the White House lawn. Hu had in fact visited Washington earlier when he was vice-president, but this was his inaugural visit as China's top leader.
In fact, Hu was originally supposed to have visited Washington D.C. last October, but called off the visit because of the calamities caused by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the American South. This visit came after that of US President George W. Bush to Beijing last November, when he also visited Kyoto, Busan (for the APEC leaders' meeting) and Ulan Bator in Mongolia.
In Southeast Asia, ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries have been watching this visit and its symbolism with profound interest for one fundamental reason: Southeast Asian countries are seeking regional stability in order to build their economies and stabilize their societies as they globalize further.
A good US-China entente at the Washington summit, like during the Beijing summit late last year, could inaugurate a further period of stability in international and regional affairs, despite the existing bilateral issues and irritants between Beijing and Washington, ranging from trade and finance to intellectual property rights (IPR). It is therefore the bigger strategic picture that is crucial to the smaller Asian countries.
The United States and China are believed to be the world's most important and key "stakeholders" in international affairs, ranging from Iran and the Korean peninsula to the Middle East and Africa. Bush would certainly have discussed these issues with Hu and asked for the latter's commitment to help maintain international stability, as China develops further. Hu would certainly have reiterated China's "peaceful development," as it emerges as a regional and world power.
This entente is thus essential to maintaining regional and international peace and stability in a world that is coming to grips with globalization, economic uncertainties, international terrorism, religious violence and social strife. Beijing and Washington have a moral obligation to help keep the world stable and peaceful, and their relationship could thus be deemed the most important and critical in world politics and economics today.
As primary international "stakeholders," the United States and China must engage in a sound dialogue on all major world issues we are confronted with, and the White House summit was thus perceived by ASEAN countries as the best opportunity for China and the United States to reach a mutual understanding on their respective perceptions of the world and the numerous "common" international issues.
ASEAN countries, which are already discussing intensely a Free Trade Area (FTA) with China, also known as the "10+1" agreement, had hoped that a greater Sino-US understanding would prevent any competition or rivalry between the two powers in Southeast Asia, which would have inconvenienced them. It is in this same vein that ASEAN countries have already watched with trepidation the brewing Sino-Japanese feud that has engulfed the two Asian giants. ASEAN countries would hope never to have to choose between two powers or two rivals as big powers usually have the tendency to seek the loyalties of smaller countries in their own tussles; choosing camps and sides usually puts smaller nations at full risk.
Moreover, the Western media have systematically portrayed China's development as a "threat" and as a bitter rivalry with, and challenge to, the United States in ASEAN. China has, on the other hand, been assuring its smaller ASEAN neighbors of its "peaceful development" and "harmonious world" concept. The "10+1" has in fact been reiterated by Beijing as proof of its benevolence and benign attitude towards ASEAN, as plans are under way to prepare for the third ASEAN-China Exposition this coming October in Nanning of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.
But the United States is facing challenges from some ASEAN countries as it pursues its global policy (like in Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iran or the Middle East), which Muslim countries in the region may not entirely agree with. Therein lies the fundamental challenge to both China and the United States in Southeast Asia.
But more importantly, ASEAN seeks regional stability for its own economic and social development, as it has always professed that it is committed to attracting foreign direct investment (FDI) to kick off fast economic development. Overall instability in the region would definitely be a big blow to economic growth and FDI influx into ASEAN economies.
ASEAN countries need trade to keep their economies humming and robust (as outward-looking economies), as they actively embrace globalization. The 1997 financial crisis was in fact more than just a financial one, as it became an economic, social and then political crisis as well; in a way, the major ASEAN countries have all experienced a "total crisis," when trade almost collapsed for the regional entity.
ASEAN societies need fast economic growth (through trade and FDI) to help muster social re-distribution across all echelons of their societies, as they "transit" into more matured economies and societies. Following the Chinese thesis, social stability is necessary to accompany reforms, otherwise social uncertainties and political chaos could emerge and compromise prescribed reforms.
A sound Sino-US entente and understanding is psychologically critical to stabilizing the whole East Asian region as a region of peace and stability, especially as East Asia attempts to build a regional community. Washington's role in the region is not challenged by Beijing, as assured repeatedly by China to the Americans and the regional countries. Washington could even help East Asia's community-building, even though it did not participate in the Kuala Lumpur East Asia Summit last December.
Southeast Asians have thus hoped ardently for a good entente between presidents Hu and Bush in Washington in order to stabilize Southeast and East Asia, so that economic and social stability can contribute towards regionalism in the region; the United States and China, as the world's powers and "responsible stakeholders," could thus stabilize the Asia-Pacific region for peaceful development and the continuous "emergence" of ASEAN.
The author is a council member of the Singapore Institute for International Affairs.
(China Daily April 21, 2006)