ASEAN: Can US open door to Asia trade by softening stance on China?
Following the lead of its ASEAN partners, the US has replaced tough talk about China with calls for cooperation. At stake is a share of the booming trade supplying a rising consumer class in Southeast Asia.
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In words that were frequently cited in subsequent months to illustrate the Obama administration’s tough stance towards China, Clinton referred to China’s increasingly aggressive pursuit of its territorial claims in the South China Sea and stated, “We oppose the use or threat of force by any claimant.”Skip to next paragraph
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The US won points with some members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, especially after China grumbled at the ASEAN regional forum Clinton was attending about too much attention paid to “small countries.”
But since then the region’s leaders have largely played down confrontation with China in favor of cooperation, especially as economic ties between the region’s behemoth and virtually all of the smaller regional economies have skyrocketed. The region has also let the US know that it prefers to see US-China cooperation.
That shift is part of what has prompted the administration to shift its own gears and focus, as Clinton is demonstrating this week, more on economic cooperation and more on a cooperative stance with China.
The administration’s pivot on China stood out in a speech delivered last week by Kurt Campbell, the assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, who underscored, in a preview of this week’s Asia trip, “our strong determination … to work with China.”
Noting that he and Clinton will be attending another ASEAN forum and other regional conferences in Cambodia, Secretary Campbell said the US and China would use the forum to announce several new cooperative initiatives.
“We will have areas of differences, we will have areas where we will naturally compete, but it will be important to send a very clear message,” he said in remarks to Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, “that we want to build a strong, durable partnership with China.”
Not everybody is pleased with the administration’s new tone on China. Some regional experts warn that China could hear a tone of weakness in the administration’s words as it tests both The Philippines and Vietnam with territorial claims in the South China Sea.
“It is good for the Chinese to know that there is a path open in Southeast Asia for a productive relationship with the US,” says Walter Lohman, director of the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “Given China’s behavior in the South China Sea over the past few months, however, now is emphatically not the time for a message of conciliation.”
Saying that a number of ASEAN member countries “rallied around” Clinton when she delivered a tough message to China in 2010, Mr. Lohman says Clinton should “pick up where she left off … and forcefully impress upon all [ASEAN] participants America’s determination to protect its interests and allies in the region.”
That advice may go unheeded, however, with the watchword of Clinton’s Southeast Asia tour already announced to be cooperation, not confrontation.