US seeks closer ASEAN ties, spelling conflict with China

US seeks closer ASEAN ties, spelling conflict with China

President Obama stressed the United States’ commitment to ASEAN during a recent leaders summit in California. Deeper engagement over economic growth and regional security will be good news for investors, but is likely to be viewed with suspicion by neighbouring China.

Between 15 and 16 February, President Obama met with the leaders of the ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in California. The two-day summit, held at the Sunnylands estate in Rancho Mirage, was the first US-ASEAN summit to be hosted by the United States.  In the words of President Obama, the summit reflected “the national commitment of the United States to a strong and enduring partnership” with ASEAN.

US desire for deeper regional engagement

ASEAN is comprised of ten member states: Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Brunei. The Association, founded in 1967, represents the world’s seventh-largest economy, with a combined GDP of $2.4 trillion. ASEAN is also of geostrategic importance, with $5.3 trillion of global trade passing through its waterways.

The Obama administration has increasingly recognised the importance of the Asia-Pacific. This was reflected in the Obama administration’s ‘Asia pivot’ in 2011.  As President Obama confirmed during the Summit’s opening session, “Early in my presidency, I decided that the United States, as a Pacific nation, would rebalance our foreign policy and play a larger and long-term role in the Asia Pacific”. This included engagement with ASEAN, “which is central to the region’s peace and prosperity”.

The US-ASEAN summit held in California is a reflection of this commitment to deeper engagement. It also represents the Obama administration’s desire to promote US influence in the region, largely at the expense of China.

ASEAN summit agenda

Two main topics were on the summit agenda: 1) the strengthening of trade and economic partnerships, and 2) enhanced security cooperation, particularly with respect to the South China Sea.  President Obama confirmed on the final day of the summit that he and the ASEAN leaders had “agreed to do more together to encourage the entrepreneurship and innovation that are at the heart of modern, competitive economies”. This included a discussion with business leaders on the best ways to attract trade and investment, including transparency, free flow of information, efficient customs and support for small and medium-sized businesses.

President Obama announced a new initiative called ‘US-ASEAN Connect’, “a network of hubs across the region to better coordinate our economic engagement and connect more of our entrepreneurs, investors and businesses with each other”.  The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was also a topic of discussion, with President Obama launching a new effort to help all ASEAN countries eventually join the trade agreement.

With regards to security, President Obama confirmed that the US and ASEAN were committed to lowering tensions in the South China Sea, including a halt to further land reclamation and militarisation. President Obama reiterated “that the United States will continue to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, and we will support the right of all countries to do the same.  We will continue to help our allies and partners strengthen their maritime capabilities”.

Notably, no specific reference was made to China in the statement, despite alluding to China’s actions in the South China Sea.  Transnational challenges were also a topic for discussion, with President Obama offering US assistance to help ASEAN countries fight terrorism, human trafficking and mitigate the effects of climate change.

Good news for investors, bad news for China?

Much of this will be good news for investors.  Enhanced transparency and better-coordinated economic engagement will be attractive for investors looking for stable business opportunities in the region.

However, an enhanced US-influence in the region will not be to every state’s taste.  China has increasingly asserted its claim to territory in the South China Sea, where it has competing claims with a number of ASEAN states. As the United States seeks to expand its influence in the region, this is likely to conflict with China, which is increasingly seeking to do the same.

Whilst it is unlikely China will be overly concerned following the US-ASEAN summit, it may well raise China’s suspicions about US-ASEAN collusion. The ASEAN member states are going to have to work together if they want to allay China’s fears, and reduce tensions in the South China Sea.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Economics

About Author

Laura Southgate

Laura Southgate is Lecturer in International Security at the Centre for International Security and Resilience, Cranfield University, located at the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom. She has a PhD in International Relations from the University of Otago, New Zealand, and an MA in International Relations and Security, and a BA in Law and Politics, from the University of Liverpool.