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How the US is losing hearts and minds in Southeast Asia to China

2019-11-27 10:00:45       source:NISCSS

November 6, 2019

The 35th Asean Summit has come and gone, and the United States has again lost ground in its struggle with China for the hearts and minds of Southeast Asia.


Over the last few years, the decline in US soft power in the region has accelerated, after its withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and President Donald Trump’s “America First” policy, which neglects the region’s strategic interests while economically punishing and alienating potential supporters.


US soft power has been declining for years, absolutely and relative to China’s influence. In the run-up to the 2017 Asean summit, both the US and China lobbied heavily for their preferences. China wanted no reference to its claims and activities in the South China Sea and the 2016 arbitration ruling against it. It also refused to support any reference to the need for a “legally binding” code of conduct between China and Asean.


The US, meanwhile, strongly supported the implementation of the 2016 decision against China and a robust, legally binding code of conduct in the South China Sea. The joint communique of the Asean foreign ministers’ meeting strongly favoured China’s preferences, leading Philippines analyst Richard Heydarian to describe it as “a slam dunk diplomatic victory for China”.


For the latest Asean summit, the hot issue was China’s incursions in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone in the disputed South China Sea, which the US roundly condemned. But it diminished its clout by sending a delegation headed by US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross at a summit attended by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.


The lower-level representation of the US delegation embarrassed summit host Thailand, a traditional US ally, and confirmed suspicions that Asean does not figure prominently in US strategic thinking, and that US commitment to the region is unreliable.


The US attempted to distract from this faux pas by urging Asean to join its attack on China. Speaking in Singapore on the summit’s eve, David Stilwell, US assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, made a thinly veiled criticism of China, saying”without security, you can’t have trade”.


“There has to be a security element,” he said. “Nobody is better suited to it than the US, mostly because we include others in that security apparatus in terms of allies and partners.”


This was a self-serving allusion to China’s “militarisation” and aggression in the South China Sea, which the US argues threaten the freedom of commercial navigation. However, this is a disingenuous broken record that few in Asean believe.


They recognise that the US is conflating freedom of navigation for warships with that for commercial vessels, and that China has not threatened, and is highly unlikely to threaten, commercial navigation in peace time.


US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sharply criticised China’s Communist Party for being “truly hostile” to the US and its values. He singled out for confrontation China’s aggression in the South China Sea. This came after an across-the-board public castigation of China by US Vice-President Mike Pence.

The US reportedly even circulated to all delegations a “discussion” paper calling for a “protest [against] China’s expansive and unlawful maritime claims”. At the Asean-US summit, O’Brien blasted China for “intimidation” in the South China Sea and for exercising a form of “realist imperialism”.


But the contest was over before it began. China suppressed potential criticism on its actions in the South China Sea. US entreaties for Asean to stand up to China fell on deaf ears. Vietnam was the only Asean member that pushed for a strong stand against China and it did not get much support.


According to two diplomats, it wanted the text of the communique to reflect China’s encroachment into waters where Vietnam has exclusive rights to exploit resources. Previous drafts referred to “serious incidents” but that terminology did not make the final statements.


A draft of the communique read: “We emphasised the need to maintain an environment conducive to the [Code of Conduct] negotiations, and thus welcomed practical measures that could reduce tensions and the risk of accidents, misunderstandings and miscalculation”. This ambiguous language could be interpreted as an admonishment to all involved – not just China.


The draft statement of the chair of the Asean+3 (China, Japan and South Korea) did not even mention South China Sea issues. In what appeared to be a watered-down compromise, the leaders “took note of some concerns on the land reclamations and activities in the area which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region”.


The result regarding the South China Sea issues was the usual milquetoast rhetoric – “all should show self-restraint and pursue peaceful resolution of the disputes in accordance with international law”, that progress is being made on the code of conduct.

Adding salt to the US wound, progress was made on the China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, the world’s largest trade agreement – which does not include the US.


Once again, the push for strong political action against China by the US and its supporters was stymied. US hard power is dominant in the region and the US may still fall back on this to shore up its influence. But its soft power, especially regarding China and the South China Sea, is rapidly waning.

Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China


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