America's 'Asia rebalance' has its limits

By Shen Dingli
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, November 27, 2012
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Digging in the wrong garden [By Jiao Haiyang/]

 Digging in the wrong garden [By Jiao Haiyang/]

After winning reelection, US President Barack Obama turned his attention to Asia. With his recent trip to Southeast Asia, where the US is keen to reassert its influence, he has continued to stress his "Asia rebalancing" strategy. America wants to make sure that the center of gravity in the region doesn't shift too much toward China.

By touring Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia, President Obama continues to weave his network of ASEAN states, some of whom are China's close friends, in order to check Beijing. In the words of his top national security aide, such a move inevitably carries the message of "competition".

Obviously, these states welcome the increased attention from the US. If this US-China competition will bring them more benefit, why shouldn't they go along? They are conscious, however, not to take sides so they will not be hurt in the long run.

In fact, over the past few decades, these states have established closer ties with China as compared to the US in terms of trade. Until recently, Myanmar, which previously faced US sanctions, had to cooperate closely with China. Cambodians still remember US-backed coup d'état in 1970 which toppled their beloved king.

Although this US "rebalancing" is meant to counter China's rising influence in the region, the question remains, has China unfairly taken advantage of Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia in recent years? It is true that the Philippines and Vietnam have complained about China's "unfairness" in handling certain disputes; however, there has been no similar charge from the three states Obama just toured.

It is notable that President Benigno Aquino III of the Philippines openly disagreed with the Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen that a majority of ASEAN nations agreed that the South China Sea territorial dispute should be settled within the ASEAN-China framework. Aquino pointed out that in addition to the ASEAN-China framework, several additional approaches to settling these disputes should exist. While he tried to leave other venues open, Aquino undermined the importance of ASEAN-China frame as key multilateral approach.

US re-shifting has misled the Philippines and possibly Vietnam to demand "more" while instead ignoring something seemingly "less" but actually much more substantial. An ASEAN consensus for talking to China on the South China Sea is unprecedented ― the Philippines will regret jeopardizing its own opportunity.

As the Philippines seems to be assembling a group of four nations – Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and itself – to talk to China, it intends not to use ASEAN as a whole, which, as Cambodia has argued, can serve as an institution to engage China collectively.

America's rebalancing has indeed generated a certain outcome – ASEAN has changed from refusing to touch the  South China Sea issue, in the context of some of its claimants' disputes with China, to an organization more willing to engage in China as an entity. Thus far, China has been insisting on bilateral talks to settle such disputes.

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