It was the latest episode of a regionwide contest among China, America and Japan to win over members of Association of Southeast Asian Nations. At the Commemorative Summit marking 40 years of Asean-Japan relations in Tokyo on December 12-14, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pressed the flesh and flashed yen by the trillions. He sought to win the grouping’s support in Tokyo’s confrontation with Beijing over the latter’s declaration of an air defense identification zone including the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyutai islands, now under Japanese control.
Abe seemed to get some of his way. The Asean-Japan communique issued last Saturday included among top regional issues “Maritime Security and Cooperation,” and “Free and safe maritime navigation and aviation,” cited in the fourth and fifth paragraphs, respectively.
In a passage likely to get Beijing’s attention, Paragraph 5 of the joint statement said: “We also agreed to enhance cooperation in ensuring the freedom of overflight and civil aviation safety in accordance with the universally recognised principles of international law, including the 1982 Unclos [U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea], and the relevant standards and recommended practices by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO).”
Moreover, Paragraph 3 on the first regional issue spoke of “regional architecture,” the term used by the United States for its vision of mechanisms and institutions to address security, economic, environmental and other cross-border issues. As early as January 2010, no less than then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spelled out the concept in her speech at Hawaii’s East-West Center, titled: “Remarks on Regional Architecture in Asia.”
However, ASEAN still managed to keep its overall equidistance from the rival powers. The communique makes no mention of China and merely reiterates regional concerns, most of which Beijing shares as well. Indeed, even Washington’s oft-cited principle of freedom of navigation, while usually seen in light of Chinese incursions in disputed islets, reefs and waters, can also apply to China’s crucial need to secure sealanes, as noted by for its commerce, including 80% of its imported oil passing through the South China Sea.
However, the Tokyo summit also signals to Beijing that Asean can lean toward or even join the U.S.-led bloc if China becomes a threat. That would be a major strategic and geopolitical setback for Beijing, which has in fact been on a charm offensive since its leadership transition a year ago. For that reason, Southeast Asia research associate Phuong Nguyen of Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, argues in his CSIS article, posted last Saturday: “Beijing is unlikely to announce an ADIZ in the South China Sea in the immediate future.”
Rather, the Chinese will seek to allay their neighbors’ fears and keep on track its program to boost economic ties, announced by President Xi Jinping at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Bali in October. With American President Barack Obama unable to attend due to the U.S. government shutdown, Xi and Premier Li Keqiang had Asean’s full attention when they launched its biggest drive for closer ties with the grouping, ushering in “a new strategic era in Southeast Asia,” says Phuong Nguyen, as America and Japan compete with China in wooing Asean.
China’s charm offensive
In Bali, Xi and Li unveiled plans to boost trade with the grouping 150% to $1 trillion by 2020. Under this initiative, Li promised that Beijing would do its part to complete negotiations for Asean’s proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership by 2015. RCEP aims to liberalize trade among Southeast Asia, China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand, building on free trade agreements within Asean and between the Association and neighboring economies.
President Xi also reiterated China’s proposal, first unveiled in his address to Indonesia’s Parliament days before the APEC summit, for an Asian infrastructure bank, harnessing Chinese financial and technological resources to upgrade and expand facilities in the region. The scheme would address Asia’s immense need for public works, estimated by the Asian Development Bank at $8 trillion in national infrastructure and $290 billion in regional facilities between 2010 and 2020.
No wonder Tokyo made its own $20-billion package of grants and loans at the Asean-Japan summit, to be disbursed over the next five years. Meanwhile, Washington joined the foreign aid fray with a $32.5-million package for sea patrols, including up to $18 million for Vietnam. The U.S. offer comes on the heels of Premier Li’s push during his October visit to Hanoi to boost Sino-Vietnamese trade by a fifth to $60 billion by 2015.
At this rate, most of Asean looks set to gain from both players in the strategic competition between the Chinese on one side, and the Americans and the Japanese on the other. Except perhaps the Philippines.
What’s in it for the Philippines?
Having taken Washington’s side after its territorial spats with Beijing since 2011, Manila can expect little from the Chinese, as shown by their limited disaster assistance during the recent Typhoon Haiyan calamity (Yolanda in the Philippines). U.S. and Japanese aid was many times greater, with American immediate relief estimated by the White House at nearly $40 million, plus warships and troops of both countries mobilized. Many reports see America’s generous and high-profile calamity effort as helping its push for greater force rotations and access to military bases in the archipelago.
Having envisioned the Philippines as a major staging platform in their security strategy for East Asia, America and Japan must now show their key ally that it pays to be on their side. Increasing U.S. military aid to $50 million a year is a start. So is the $670 million in Japanese loans for Yolanda rehabilitation. The Philippines should also get the biggest slice of Japan’s $20-billion largesse in 2014-18.
And when the next island confrontation with China happens, it would shore up Filipinos’ faith in America if, unlike its utter inaction during the Scarborough Shoal incident, the United States would rattle its saber loud and clear in defense of the Philippines, as it did for Japan over the ADIZ. Otherwise, Washington’s most longstanding ally in Asia may start wondering if it would be better off joining the rest of Asean sitting on the geopolitical fence, wooed by China, America and Japan.