The importance of the ASEAN+USA summit which was held on February 15-16 of this year on the territory of Sunnylands ranch in California is determined by the context of the new global game, in particular the recent events in Southeast Asia (SEA). Ten countries from this sub-region form the aforementioned Association, and the leading world players are now engaged in the struggle to exert influence on this Association in general as well as on some of its members.
Among several reasons for this struggle, the exceptional strategic importance of SEA stands apart. This importance was noted as early as during World War I, however it has gained special weight today in connection to the developing trend for moving the “centre of gravity” of the new global game from the Euro-Atlantic to the Asia-Pacific Region. It should be enough to point out that goods with a total value of about USD 5 trillion are transported annually along the trade route passing through the South China Sea (SCS), and the safety of this marine traffic is becoming one of the new topics within the new global agenda.
At the same time, ASEAN is trying (usually in vain) to position itself as an independent player benefiting from the struggle of the “big guys” to influence the Association. Among other ways, regular “10+” forums, where such leading regional (and global) players as the USA, China and Japan act as “units”, are used for this purpose.
In November 2015, the regular ASEAN+PRC and ASEAN+Japan forums were held in the capital of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur. The forums were preceded by the APEC summit organised on November 17-20 in the capital of the Philippines, Manila. It should be noted that the ASEAN+PRC forum held at that period was not quite a summit as, instead of the Chinese President Xi Jinping, it was attended by Prime Minister Li Keqiang. The reasons for the absence of President Xi at this event, as discussed earlier in the New Eastern Outlook, were due to the complications in the relations between Japan and China.
US President Barack Obama was also present at the ASEAN forums held in Kuala Lumpur. However, in contrast with China and Japan, Washington decided to hold “its” summit with no connection to the “convenient occasion” (where all the participants were assembled at one venue) but separately, on US territory. That was to emphasize the special importance given by Washington to developing the relations with ASEAN.
Chinese experts paid great attention to the meeting of the American president with the leaders of ten SEA countries. On the eve of its opening, the Global Times published an article with a noteworthy heading “US-ASEAN Summit no diplomatic coup”.
The article was accompanied by a cartoon depicting a group of gentlemen at a round table. One of these gentlemen, a typical Uncle Sam in a top hat with his forefinger raised in a preaching gesture, is saying something solemn, while almost all his interlocutors are either dozing openly with their heads on the table or playing with their iPhones. There is only one exception, a man resembling the current Philippines president, who is listening tensely to each word coming from the “boss”.
The cartoon was an accurate subjective illustration of this particular Chinese expert’s perception of yet another US-ASEAN summit. But it hardly reproduced the real picture of what was happening at the Californian ranch in an adequate way.
It may be assumed that at least the Prime Minister of Vietnam, Nguen Tan Dung, was listening to the US President with no less attention. In any case, the agreement on Mr Obama’s visit to Vietnam in May of this year reached during the negotiations with the head of the Vietnamese delegation on the sidelines of the summit became the first, and quite important, practical result of the event.
It is more than likely that most of the other guests, if not “hanging on every word” of the summit’s host, were at least trying to derive useful information from his speech. If for no other reason than because the USA, along with China, EU and Japan, is one of the key partners of ASEAN countries in the sphere of economics. However, at the present time the much more important issue of war and peace within the SEA involving the leading world powers has appeared on the political horizon.
China is right to believe that “Southeast Asia doesn’t want China and the US to clash with each other”. But the issue is to be solved not by the ASEAN countries but mainly between the US and China.
Without going deeper into the question which of the two leading global powers “kicked off” and why (as always, there hardly exists an unequivocal answer to this question), let us take note of the evident military activation of the USA in the South China Sea (SCS) which has recently been “sailing close to the wind”.
New Eastern Outlook previously discussed the situation where on October 27, 2015, American missile destroyer Lassen entered the 12-mile zone surrounding one of three coral islands of the Spratly archipelago constructed by the PRC in the SCS. On January 30 of this year, another American missile carrier Curtis Wilbur made a similar manoeuvre near one of the artificial islands of the Paracel archipelago in the same sea.
In both cases the Pentagon Chief, Ashton Carter, pointed out that those actions served as a demonstration of the American commitment to provide for “freedom of navigation” in the SCS allegedly hindered by the Chinese work in creating artificial islands and building facilities there, designed for military purposes. Secondly, he emphasized that the USA would conduct further similar actions. The reaction thereto from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the PRC was, as expected, outwardly negative.
Suitably for the occasion, we may say that the recently formed American strategy of inflicting painful “pinpricks” on China is being implemented in different ways. The latest action in this vein was the resolution of the US Senate to rename a square in front of the Chinese Embassy in Washington after one of the Chinese “dissidents” who is serving a prison term.
It was put forward by Senator Ted Cruz, a leading contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination and adopted on February 13, provoking a negative reaction in the PRC.
It is very unlikely that President Obama will sign this scandalous decision. This will be correct (and, finally, in the interests of the USA) but this will in no way help to increase his popularity with American “patriots”. However, popularity is hardly of immediate interest for a president who is leaving his office, while the potential candidate from the Democratic Party at the next Presidential election, Bernie Sanders, who stands for improvement of relations with the PRC (and with Russia) relies on quite different segment of the voters.
The same topic of “maritime security” in SEA and ensuring security in the sub-region in general (in cooperation with “our allies and partners in the region”) lay at the centre of President Obama’s remarks at Opening session of the summit.
He pointed out in particular that it was his administration that decided to “rebalance” the American foreign policy towards Asia Pacific, especially towards the SEA sub-region. Since he took office, trade between the United States and ASEAN has boosted by 55 percent and now the Association is the fourth largest goods trading partner of the USA.
The issue of “maritime security” and safety in the SCS was the focus of the short joint declaration (Sunnylands Declaration). Paragraphs 5 to 9 (from the 17) of the document mention this issue directly or indirectly.
That said, the PRC is not mentioned in any way. This fact, apart from the need to preserve the decorum in respect of the second world power in an official document, also testifies to the absence of unity among ASEAN member states with regard to the contents of the aforementioned issue. The majority of these countries do not wish to spoil their good relations with one of their key economic partners.
On the whole, one may conclude that yet another ASEAN+USA summit was used by Washington mostly for the purpose of demonstrating its deep and long-term involvement in all the aspects of the situation that is unfolding in SEA.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.“