U.S. Strengthens Southeast Asia Ties, Playing Catch-up to China
- From: Chim <ChimS1@xxxxxxx>
- Date: Tue, 21 Jul 2009 20:08:01 -0700 (PDT)
By Daniel Ten Kate
July 22 (Bloomberg) -- The Obama administration plans to join a
friendship accord with Southeast Asia, six years after China signed up
and signaled a challenge to U.S. military might and economic interests
in the resource-rich region.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will sign the Treaty of Amity
and Cooperation with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian
Nations today at a meeting in Phuket, Thailand. The non-binding
agreement would give the U.S. a seat at regional forums as a
counterweight to rising Chinese clout.
“As China rises in the region, it is in the U.S. interest to provide
an alternative great power to which Asean countries can relate,” said
Donald Weatherbee, professor emeritus at the University of South
Carolina, who has studied the region since the 1950s. “For the U.S. to
deliberately diminish its engagement could lead to a bandwagon effect
toward China with negative consequences for other friends and allies
The treaty accession reflects growing U.S. unease with China’s
increasing political, economic and military power in a region that
contains sea lanes vital to world trade, as well as coal, oil and
other commodities. The U.S. Navy’s 40,000-strong force in the 7th
Fleet has helped police Southeast Asian waters since World War II.
China’s trade with Southeast Asia has grown almost 20 times since 1993
to $179 billion last year, with its share of total Asean commerce
rising to 10.5 percent from 2 percent. The U.S. share of trade with
the region during that time fell to 12 percent last year from 17
percent even as two-way shipments almost tripled to $201 billion,
according to Asean statistics.
“In the days and months ahead, the United States will seek new
opportunities to work with Asean and partners across the region,”
Clinton wrote in the Bangkok Post yesterday.
Asean, whose 10 members include Indonesia, Vietnam and the
Philippines, aims to create a European Union-style economic bloc by
2015 to integrate a market of 583 million people. The region’s
waterways include the Straits of Malacca, 1.7 miles (2.7 kilometers)
wide at its narrowest point, through which about 80 percent of China’s
oil imports pass.
Members of Asean are seeking to benefit from China’s economic ties
without becoming smothered by its military superiority. Vietnam,
Brunei, Malaysia the Philippines and Taiwan claim all or part of the
oil-rich Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. China says it owns
the 3,000 islands spread over an area the size of California.
The sea, stretching from Singapore to the Straits of Taiwan, carries
half the world’s merchant fleet by tonnage each year. China has said
all disputes should be resolved peacefully according to a 2002
agreement with Asean in which every country agreed not to inhabit the
All countries that claim the sea should find a “solution through
dialogue and consultation,” China’s foreign ministry spokesman Qin
Gang said last month. China “attaches great importance to safeguarding
national sovereignty as well as its citizens’ safety and legitimate
rights and interests,” he said.
For the past two years, China has put pressure on companies from the
U.S. and elsewhere to stop them working with Vietnamese oil companies
to explore the South China Sea, Scot Marciel, the U.S. ambassador to
Asean, told Congress at a July 15 hearing. The Chinese government last
year said it opposed a plan by Exxon Mobil Corp. to explore for
petroleum in the region with Vietnam.
‘Imbalance of Power’
“Only the United States has both the stature and the national power to
confront the obvious imbalance of power that China brings to these
situations,” Senator Jim Webb, a Virginia Democrat on the Senate
Foreign Relations Committee, told last week’s hearing. “We have an
obligation to maintain a geostrategic balance in the region that
ensures fairness for every nation in Asia.”
U.S. sanctions against Asean member Myanmar for failing to release
political prisoners including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi were
among the reasons the Treaty of Amity has been delayed, according to
the Congressional Research Service. Australia, already a signatory,
maintains sanctions on Myanmar.
In signing the treaty, the U.S. joins most other Asian powers.
Accession is a prerequisite to joining the East Asia Summit, an even
larger grouping of Asia’s powers that may precede a wider economic
Both China and the U.S. have an important role to play in maintaining
peace in Southeast Asia, Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya said this
week. Whereas China is “an important market for Asean countries,” the
U.S. Navy’s patrol of the sea ways makes it “a stabilizing force,” he
Asean’s push for alliances with all of Asia’s powers reflects its
desire to avoid getting caught up in a wider battle, said Simon Tay,
chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. For
centuries, the region has found itself a battleground of colonizers
and ideological fights, a vulnerability that remains, Tay said.
Asean also includes Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Cambodia, Brunei
“The key is not so much what Asean as a grouping does, but what China
and the U.S. do together,” Tay said. “If these two big guys fight, it
doesn’t make much difference.”
To contact the reporters on this story: Daniel Ten Kate in Phuket,
Thailand at dtenkate@xxxxxxxxxxxxx;
Last Updated: July 21, 2009 13:00 EDT
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