Concern over China at U.S.-ASEAN summit

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Donald K. Emmerson, director of the Southeast Asia Forum

The United States and the ASEAN group of nations have further strengthened political, economic and security ties, after their second full-scale summit in New York.

President Barack Obama said the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which groups ten countries, had the potential for true world leadership. President Obama also made it clear that he saw Asia as a vital plank of US foreign policy.

DR EMMERSON: In the run-up to the summit, there was a big question. Would the partnership be declared as being strategic in nature? That was a key word in the discussion and what happened was the leaders basically finessed the issue. It's not hard to suspect that they worried that if they declared a strategic partnership with the United States, this would cause alarm in Beijing. Because let's remember in the run-up to this summit, we've had a lot of activity - the split between China and Japan over the disputed islands, one could continue with some evidence of a more muscular Chinese foreign policy, its commitment to its claim to possess basically the entire South China Sea, escalating that to the level of a core interest, presumably equivalent to their interest in recovering Taiwan. I could go on, but in many case, it was understandable that the subtext of the meeting was what will China think? So basically what the summit did was to finesse the issue. They decided to pass on the question of raising the partnership to quote - a strategic level - unquote, to the ASEAN US Eminent Persons Group, presumably expert advisors that would be convened and would make recommendations down the road.

And one of the most remarkable things about the statement was how much ground it covered. I mean, among the topics and issues that the leaders committed themselves to do something about, were 14 as I count them, 14 different subjects. Human rights, educational change, trade and investment, science, technology, climate change, interfaith dialogue, disaster management, illicit trafficking, international terrorism, I could go on. So it is clear to me that one of the tasks that ASEAN and the US will have to face in the coming months, is to try to insert some sense of priority.

LAM: On that issue of priority, the US President, Barack Obama, of course, postponed a couple of visits to Indonesia due to pressing domestic demands. Did he in anyway express American commitment to the ASEAN region?

DR EMMERSON: Yes, this was particularly kind of, I suppose you could say, evident in the fact that the meeting occurred at all, finally it was organized. It lasted two hours. He was apparently quite engaged and engaging during that period of time. And I think there is no question that the United States under his administration is committed to South East Asia as a region, indeed has agreed with the leaders of ASEAN, that ASEAN should play a central role in the process of building regional cooperation in East Asia.

LAM: And, of course, one of the topics that came up as well was the South China Sea, that entire region, given the competing maritime and territorial claims vis-à-vis the Spratley and Paracel Island groups. Do you think China is watching the US relationship with ASEAN, this growing relationship - do you think Beijing might be watching it with unease?

DR EMMERSON: Yes, absolutely. I am confident that they are watching it with considerable unease and I note that the statement that the leaders made, made no reference whatsoever to the South China Sea, presumably because of sensitivity with regard to Beijing's possible reaction. The topic was implicitly mentioned, but not explicitly.

LAM: And what about within ASEAN, the grouping itself? The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, on the weekend said that the ASEAN nations' credibility might suffer if they did not take a tougher line with Burma and this is in view of the upcoming elections in November. This is presumably directed at specifically China and India, but it could also be referenced to ASEAN could it not, because Burma is a member of ASEAN. Do you see that changing anytime soon with ASEAN, that ASEAN countries, leading members like Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, that they might take a stronger stand with the military junta in Rangoon?

DR EMMERSON: The election in Myanmar, if I can call it an election, since it will be highly compromised and manipulated will take place, at least is scheduled to take place November 7th. Indonesia does not take over the chairmanship of ASEAN until the 1st January. So the question is, since Indonesia is a democratic country, arguably, the most democratic of any country in South East Asia, will it use its opportunity to try to put pressure on Burma in the year 2011? My own view is that ASEAN will probably not fulfill Ban Ki-moon's hope, will not exercise significant pressure on the junta. Instead, we could get the opposite situation in which so long as there is not major violence associated with the election, it will essentially be received by ASEAN as a kind of minimally-acceptable basis for assuring the Burmese junta that ASEAN still treats them as a full member. In other words, it's quite possible that the junta may get away with what I take to be a kind of facade effort to legitimate their rule.