As a series of Asean summits is set to begin later this week in Myanmar, two draft statements highlight upcoming issues between regional leaders, the US and China.
The drafts show that Myanmar, this year’s Asean chair, will welcome a variety of initiatives by the US, from cooperation on information sharing to cooperation in various regional forums.
The draft of the closing statement for the US-Asean summit, written in advance and subject to change, highlights some of the main issues Asean, the US and other countries will focus on in a series of regional summits that begins Nov. 12.
The statement highlights the US’s “continued contribution” to regional cooperation, including for capacity building for maritime security and the Expanded East Asia Seafarer Training Program and seeks greater US involvement in Asean’s efforts to improve regional integration.
In another draft statement, to be released after the Asean-China summit, Asean acknowledges China’s influence in the region, where it has been the single largest trading partner since 2009.
“We reaffirmed our strong commitment to further strengthen the Asean-China Strategic Partnership, particularly in the 11 priority areas, namely agriculture, information and communication technology, human resource development, investment, Mekong Basin Development, transportation, energy, culture, tourism, public health and environment,” the statement says.
Analysts say China’s regional influence is a concern for some Southeast Asian countries, even as the Obama Administration makes a diplomatic “pivot” toward Asia. The impending Asean summits, which include summits with the US and China, will likely put greater focus on these issues.
“Fearful that China may be asserting itself too much, a number of Southeast Asian governments that are in Asean collectively have moved back closer to the United States and welcome American reengagement in regional diplomacy and security,” said John Ciorciari, a public policy professor at the University of Michigan. “And so that’s the biggest growth area on the US side. From a Chinese perspective, what’s interesting is that although China has certainly suffered diplomatic losses in the last few years because of its conflicts with Asean member states in the South China Sea, China has continued to be able to develop more and more and to extend economic ties in the region.”
That’s put a shift in the working relationships in the region, he said. “The United States has a long history of close working cooperation with a number of the Asean member states. China has arisen more recently as a major player in regional diplomatic and security affairs and has the burden of trying to overcome a cold war legacy of antagonistic relations with quite a few Asean member states. So China in general has less robust and less well developed security ties in Southeast Asia than does the United States.”
Ou Virak, an analyst at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said US remains involved in the region, especially in the South China Sea issue, a major maritime thoroughfare, and sees an economic benefit in Asean’s market of 600 million people.
Some Asean members are locked in disputes with China, while others, like Cambodia, are strong partners of the regional giant, he said. That has made it hard for Asean to face Chinese issues as a singular entity.
“Strategically, China does not allow Asean to have a common decision,” he said. “It’s actually easy for China to do that with its influence, because Asean has 10 members now and any country can deny any decision. So if there is a member among them that disagrees, it can do nothing.”
Where China once used influence over Myanmar to upset Asean decisions, it is now leaning more on Cambodia, where its influence remains strong, he said. “Now, Myanmar is not dependable for China, so China is attempting to depend on Cambodia to prevent Asean from preparing a common force to block China’s leverage,” Ou Virak said.
Chheang Sokha, a Cambodian analyst that works with Asean civil society organizations, said the South China Sea issue is an ongoing concern, because it has the potential to lead to regional violence.
“In this context, we think that US has an important role in influencing solutions to the crisis peacefully,” he said.
But Myanmar’s draft statement for the closing of the Asean-China summit this week indicates much praise for the relationship of the two sides.
That includes cooperation on the code of conduct for the South China Sea, which aims at building trust between China and Asean nations with overlapping claims to areas of the sea, particularly the Philippines and Vietnam.
The draft statement also highlights Chinese cooperation on maritime connectivity, science and technology, as well as search and rescue, disaster management and navigation safety.
“We noted with satisfaction the commitment made to fully operationalize the Asean-China Cooperation Fund,” the draft reads. “Asean also reaffirmed the importance of maintaining peace, stability and maritime security in the region. We further stressed the importance of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, the Joint Statement of the 15th Asean-China Summit on the 10th Anniversary of the DOC in 2012 and the adoption of the Guidelines for the Implementation of the DOC in 2011.”
“In this regard, we reaffirmed our commitment to continue to fully and effectively implement the DOC, to build trust and confidence in order to enhance maritime security, and encourage the concerned parties to resolve their disputes by peaceful means, in accordance with the universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, without resorting to the threat or use of force, while exercising self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability,” the draft says.
Meanwhile, Myanmar will also welcome US involvement in issues like counter-terrorism, climate change and the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons.
It will nod to other programs, “particularly in the areas of environment protection and sustainable water management, health, education, agriculture and food security, energy security and connectivity,” the US-Asean draft statement says. “We are satisfied with the active role of the US in promoting sub-regional cooperation through the Lower Mekong Initiative, particularly in the areas of environment protection and sustainable water management, health, education, agriculture and food security, energy security and connectivity.”