Sam’s Southeast Asia Round-Up

29.09.10

Categorie: Asia, China, Japan, Sam Abrams |
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by SAM ABRAMS

Chinese and American Strategy Edition
Last week in New York, in support of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly backed giving the South China Sea status as a “maritime commons.” Martin Ott, writing for the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, says this assertive posture stands out from recent years of America’s relative distance from the issue.

Preceding Clinton’s most recent remarks were U.S. military exercises this summer in the Yellow Sea in which the U.S. rebuffed Chinese demands to move the exercises, and Clinton’s comments at the annual ASEAN forum in Hanoi at which Clinton called freedom of navigation in the South China Sea a “national interest.” With increasingly assertive rhetoric coming from Chnese leaders and U.S. support for Japan in its recent rift with China over a Chinese sailor, perceptions of heightened tension have grown.

And yet, Ott continues, one should not read too much into these events: with respect to ASEAN in particular, “no ASEAN countries would be willing to put their money where their mouths are.” While these countries generally support Clinton’s statement, they would rather not have to choose between China and the United States: its intentions are suspect, but China has emerged as the region’s largest trading partner, and its military has no peer in the region — save the United States.

Also looking at China’s Southeast Asian foreign policy, Joshua Kurlantzick asks on his Council of Foreign Relations blog, “What is China thinking?” China spent a good bit of the last 15 years making sure its neighbors did not feel threatened by its rise. Yet, as Kurlantzick (and several others) observe, China’s behavior over recent months has alienated many Southeast Asian countries: “Vietnam is fast-tracking its cooperation with the United States, other Southeast Asian nations are pushing Washington to re-engage with the region, and even Cambodia, whose leadership generally detests Western powers, is cozying up with Washington.”

Kurlantzick posits three possibilities: China is beginning to shift the conversation to the issues it really cares about; domestic voices are pushing for a more assertive foreign policy; and underestimation of regional players.

David Lamption, Professor at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies also posits that “there is a good reason that Beijing has not conveyed its thinking to the outside world — that is because there is a real debate going on in China itself about precisely how strong it is, how its newfound power should be employed, and what the risks of greater international involvement may be.”

Josh Rogin at The Cable reports that China might be trying to contain fallout from the last few months by pursuing “Track 2” diplomacy (informal communiqués) in an attempt to restart military-to-military ties, which China cut off in January in response to the U.S. announcement of plans to sell arms to Taiwan.

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