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Shi Yongming
The Anchor for Regional Stability
China-ASEAN relations play a key role in the Asian century
By Shi Yongming | NO. 8 FEBRUARY 23, 2017
Xi Jinping (left), General Secretary of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, holds a welcoming ceremony for Nguyen Phu Trong, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Viet Nam Central Committee, before their talks in Beijing on January 12(XINHUA)

The most eye-catching event at the start of 2017 might be U.S. business tycoon Donald Trump officially embarking on his White House career. Avoiding the usual hypocrisy from traditional politicians, who tend to break their campaign promises once assuming power, the alleged political layman began honoring his commitments immediately after walking into the West Wing.

Among his first steps, the most significant in the Asia-Pacific region was to withdraw the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement. Though Trump sent his secretary of defense to Japan and South Korea to placate the two biggest U.S. allies in the region, as well as possibly reneging on his threat of withdrawing U.S. military forces in the two countries, he has still abandoned much of predecessor Barack Obama's "pivot to Asia" strategy.

This will significantly impact the regional geopolitical landscape. Considering the circumstances, some have suggested that ASEAN nations will be more inclined to embrace China rather than the United States. Despite the obvious overstatement, closer cooperation in East Asia is the right direction to pursue and globalization will continue.

The Asian century 

That the 21st century would be "the Asian century" became a global consensus before the turn of the millennium. The assertion is based on rapid East Asian growth that began in earnest in the 1980s as well as the large and high-quality labor force of the region—East Asia's population accounts for one third of the whole world.

On the surface, the high level of capital influx from the United States and Japan and the corresponding U.S. market access for East Asian exports constitute one of the major reasons for the sustained period of growth.

But such progress would not have been made possible if it has not been underpinned by regional political stability derived from following factors: largely stable and effective governance in regional countries; China's reform and opening up; the relatively stable China-U.S. relationship; the improvement of China's political relations with Japan, South Korea and ASEAN countries.

China and ASEAN nations are neighbors physically linked by rivers and mountains. In modern history, they even shared similar experiences at the hands of the colonial powers. During the Cold War era, though some Southeast Asian countries differed ideologically to China, they chose not to side against the country, based on the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence. Since the end of the Cold War, China-ASEAN ties have gradually reached new highs.

In the 1980s and 90s, East Asia developed an export-oriented economy, featuring capital and technology from the United States and Japan, along with East Asian assembly lines and the U.S. consumer market. Therefore, regional cooperation at the time was based on the economic collaboration of the Asia-Pacific region with the ASEAN dominating security dialogues.

However, as U.S. concerns over increasing competition from East Asia grew, it established the North American Free Trade Area, which has divided the Asia-Pacific region. Taking advantage of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the United States also tried to assert dominance in East Asian financial markets. The two aforementioned events have encouraged East Asian countries to seek a free trade area of their own. To that end, cooperation frameworks such as the East Asian Summit and China-ASEAN free trade agreement (FTA) have emerged and Sino-ASEAN cooperation has become the cornerstone for regional stability and development.

U.S. neo-imperialism 

During the 1997 financial crisis, China could have taken advantage of the crisis like what Japan had done and depreciated its currency to boost its export competitiveness in the international market, but it didn't. In fact, its currency appreciated, making itself a reliable trading partner for regional countries.

The rise of China and the booming China-ASEAN FTA ever since have unsettled the United States. Two main schools of thought began emerging in U.S. academic circles—neo-imperialism and the power transition theory.

The two theories overlap in many respects, with both claiming that the so-called U.S.-dominated order is a world managed and controlled by a U.S.-led Western alliance, and that China's rise and regional cooperation will lead to a power transition, undermining U.S. hegemony.

U.S. power arguably peaked during the George W. Bush administration. The then president pursued a neo-imperial strategy grounded in neo-conservative ideology. By Barack Obama's presidency, American power had been diminished by the 2008 financial crisis as well as Washington's anguish over a perceived pattern in East Asia tilting leverage in China's favor.

In light of shrinking power, the Obama administration promoted the "pivot to Asia" strategy, utilizing its superior military, political, economic and diplomatic resources in response to China's rise. Fundamentally, the strategy consists of strengthening U.S. alliances in East Asia while simultaneously attempting to disintegrate the regional cooperation framework.

Actually, this began when Washington pressured the 13-country East Asia cooperation mechanism to expand to 16 countries via Tokyo during the George W. Bush administration. By supporting Indian membership, Washington also hopes New Delhi can help drag down the mechanism. Obama affirmed such "commitment" to the region by participating in the 2011 East Asian Summit.

In the meantime, the United States has tried to drive a wedge between China and ASEAN via the South China Sea maritime dispute, attempting to use ASEAN as leverage. The so-called "dual structure theory," proposed by some U.S. academics, seeks to separate East Asia's economic issues from the region's security questions, the idea being that regional nations should rely on the United States for security but can engage with China on the economic front.

New prospects 

Under the pretext of "observing international law," the Obama administration pressured Manila to unilaterally submit the South China Sea issue to an ad hoc tribunal for arbitration. Meanwhile, Washington continued to flex its military muscle in the South China Sea and attempted to influence the outcome of the South China Sea arbitration.

After President Rodrigo Duterte took office as Philippine president, his government drew a line in the sand from the previous administration, making the arbitration award defunct. Obama's provocative strategy in the South China Sea resulted in the Philippines reversing sides.

Against this backdrop, Viet Nam also adjusted its South China Sea policy after its transition of power in the government: shifting its stance from confrontation to dialogue. Previously, the Obama administration adopted two-sided policies toward Viet Nam. On the one hand, it had actively encouraged the country to confront China on the South China Sea issue via incentives such as lifting its arms embargo on its former enemy. On the other hand, Washington tried to launch a "color revolution" in the name of human rights. That is part of the reason why Viet Nam has kept its distance to the United States.

As for the current U.S. administration, Trump's Asia-Pacific policy has more commercial than military overtones so far. It cannot simply be concluded that Trump is anti-globalization based on his TPP withdrawal. It was his strong business acumen which led to the U.S. withdrawal from TPP, as he believes the deal does not befit his "America first" agenda. What Obama promoted was not globalization, but regional separatism. To achieve its political objective, Obama made great concessions to Tokyo in TPP, making Japan—one of the most developed nations—the least free trading member in the agreements, with only 95 percent of Japanese commodities included. This explains why the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spared relentless efforts to secure the agreement.

Countries in the Asia-Pacific region are now strengthening their coordination to pursue the ASEAN-initiated Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, an alternative to Obama's TPP, aiming at building a free trade zone in the region as soon as possible.

The author is an associate researcher of Asia-Pacific issues at the China Institute of International Studies  

Copyedited by Dominic James Madar 

Comments to liuyunyun@bjreview.com 

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