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.

Samrang Pring/Reuters
China's Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi attends the 13th ASEAN Plus Three Foreign Minister's meeting at the office of the Council of Ministers in Phnom Penh Tuesday.

Concerned that the United States is missing out on the boom in trade serving a burgeoning consumer middle class across much of Southeast Asia, the Obama administration is busy fine-tuning its famous “pivot to Asia.”

Out is the administration’s focus of recent years on security issues, with its emphasis on a rising China and on letting China’s neighbors know that the US intends to remain a Pacific military power ready to counter any country’s aggressive actions in the region.

In is a broadened policy that gives more weight to America’s economic and business interests in countries from Vietnam to Malaysia – and that puts more emphasis on cooperation with China.

The pivot of the pivot is evident this week in Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s travel through Southeast Asia, which is to include stops in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

Speaking Tuesday in Hanoi – which she lauded as “a pretty cool place” (perhaps playing with words and subtly referencing Washington’s recent record-breaking heat) – Secretary Clinton chose to underscore “the breadth of our engagement” in the Asia Pacific.

“It’s not just about security, although that is important,” she said of the administration’s efforts to “reenergize” America’s regional ties. “It’s also about standing up for democracy and human rights,” she told the American Chamber of Commerce, and “for economic ties, boosting trade, and as secretary of State, advocating for American businesses.”  

When Clinton stops in Laos on Wednesday she’ll be the first secretary of State to visit that country since John Foster Dulles in 1955. And whereas his purpose over a half-century ago was to keep Laos from becoming a communist domino, Clinton will emphasize America’s role in regional cooperation efforts when she meets the country’s leaders.

Clinton’s focus on boosting economic ties contrasts sharply with the message she carried to Southeast Asia when she last visited in 2010. Her trip then, which also included Hanoi, was portrayed more as putting China on notice that America would be around to counterbalance any aggressive action in the South China Sea than as a business and trade mission.

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.”

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.

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