This week ASEAN foreign ministers concluded an informal retreat in Thailand with a joint call for a unified ASEAN position on a code of conduct for the South China Sea. The consensus contrasts with last year’s formal ASEAN foreign ministers meeting in Cambodia which failed to issue a joint declaration because of Cambodia’s (then ASEAN Chair) opposition.
Now, perhaps one can attribute Cambodia’s relative change of heart due to Hun Sen’s narrow parliamentary election victory (and thus his need for his ASEAN neighbors to give the results legitimacy) or simply that Cambodia’s commitment to China had lasted only for its term as ASEAN Chair (which I think is more likely). Either way, the affirmation of ASEAN consensus on this issue is a positive development for the regional grouping.
Indeed, the resurrection of ASEAN consensus on the South China Sea is most likely the result of China’s own policy initiatives in the region. Chinese verbal and maritime activity in the region, including creating a municipal Chinese government for the island in the South China Sea, reduce ASEAN’s confidence that China wants a peaceful, cooperative solution to the territorial disputes. The recent Chinese leadership transition (e.g., the need to emphasize nationalistic tones) may have instigated these moves, but in any event, China has been responsible for most of the provocative moves in the region.
As a result, the other major power in Asia, the United States, has not had to do much to improve its diplomatic position in southeast Asia. America’s “pivot” or refocusing on Asia has been aided to a great extent by China, making it relatively easy for America to maintain its leadership role in the region.
The problem will be what the United States will do if and when China changes tack and follows a charm offensive with ASEAN. There are some signs that with President Xi Jinping and his team consolidating their power in China, China will dial back its approach to southeast Asia. If that happens, America will need to offer ASEAN members more than simply being the default global power in the region. The Obama Administration has taken some measures to do this by asking the U.S. Congress for Trade Promotion Authority so that the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) FTA talks can be concluded and implemented. This will reassure those ASEAN members who are in the TPP talks, e.g., Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam.
The greater difficulty will be how to help those ASEAN members who are not in the TPP talks, e.g., Indonesia and the Philippines. As I noted in the WSJ.com, the frustrating thing is that Indonesia and the Philippines are the most supportive of a U.S. role in the region yet they are the most unprepared of the major ASEAN countries to join the TPP. Squaring the circle will require both countries (and Thailand as well) to face their internal opposition and join the TPP talks. The example of Japan is helpful; if Japan can face down its internal opposition, why not these countries? America will have to help those countries do so.
Thus, the United States in southeast Asia has a situation similar to that of Apple in the electronics market. Both offer products and solutions which are currently popular, but continued success will require continued innovation.