The Anchor For Regional Stability

By Shi Yongming   2017-03-03 23:03:56

China-ASEAN relations play a key role in the Asian century

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

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 highquality 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 ChinaASEAN FTA ever since have unsettled the  United States. Two main schools of thought  began emerging in U.S. academic circles—neoimperialism 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.

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

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 antiglobalization 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.  n

Copyedited by Dominic James Madar Comments to

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