Southeast Asia is feeling the heat from the strategic rivalry between the United States and mainland China with governments anxious for the two powers to iron out their differences in the vital interests of regional stability and economic growth.
The testy relationship shadowed a regional security forum here last week attended by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and mainland Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan along with other foreign ministers from Asia and Europe.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which has spearheaded the Asia-Pacific’s only security dialogue under the ASEAN Regional Forum, fears being forced to take sides if ever the rivalry between the world’s only superpower and its most populous nation comes to a head.
“I hope it will not come to that point,” a top Southeast Asian foreign ministry official told AFP. “If ever it does, it will cause political fissures in ASEAN.”
The crucial importance of stable PRC-U.S. ties was not lost on ASEAN foreign ministers, who met among themselves for two days before huddling with their counterparts from North America and Europe in the Vietnamese capital.
In a joint communique issued at the end of their annual meeting, the ministers of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam “agreed that the stability of relationships among the major powers, particularly the U.S. and China, is important to the region”.
“It is very important. In fact, it is the single most important major power relationship that ASEAN would like to see remain stable,” said M.C. Abad, spokesman for the Jakarta-based ASEAN secretariat.
ASEAN hopes that the meetings between Powell and Tang in Hanoi, as well as the US secretary of state’s ensuing visit to Beijing, will help clear air turned thick by recrimination since President George W. Bush took office.
With the Cold War over, Japan mired in economic crisis and the Bush administration still formulating its policy on Asia, mainland China has taken on a higher strategic profile as a regional power.
“U.S. policy on Asia, and in particular mainland China, appears to be still evolving, and the relationship is yet to be fully defined,” said Singaporean Foreign Minister S. Jayakumar.
“Whatever the policy, the state of those relations will impact the triangular relationship between the U.S., Beijing and Japan which has to date provided balance in the strategic landscape in the Asia Pacific,” he said.
Mainland China’s economic weight is also beginning to show as the Asian giant prepares to join the World Trade Organization (WTO), posing a formidable competitor to ASEAN countries for foreign direct investment and exports.
ASEAN Secretary General Rodolfo Severino said at the Hanoi meetings, however, that Beijing’s entry to the WTO would pose not just a competitive challenge but also a huge trading opportunity for Southeast Asia.
Trade between the ASEAN bloc and mainland China has doubled from 1996, when Beijing became a full dialogue partner of the regional bloc, to be worth US$39.52 billion last year, Foreign Minister Tang said in a speech.
He also welcomed progress in a code of conduct being drafted to help ease tensions in the South China Sea, where mainland China is embroiled in a territorial row with four ASEAN members over ownership of the Spratly islands.
Faced with rising mainland Chinese influence, analysts say there is a need for continued U.S. engagement in Southeast Asia as a counterbalance.
The region “holds the potential to trigger major crises without sustained attention and cogent policies,” warned a recent report by an independent task force sponsored by the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations.
“Southeast Asia remains important to American economic, strategic, political and humanitarian interests.”