Between Barack and a Hard Place: Asian Regional Integration in the Shadow of Superpower Rivalry

The recent visit by Barack Obama to Southeast Asia is a clear elucidation of his Administration's ambitions for the region. It is becoming clear that both China and the US are competing for regional influence, forcing the ASEAN states to walk a tightrope in their engagement with the two major powers.

By Brijesh Khemlani for

For Southeast Asian leaders, it couldn't have been sweeter. Fresh from a triumphant re-election victory, US President Barack Obama embarked on his first post-election foreign trip to Southeast Asia. There were several firsts during this historic four-day trip. Obama became the first serving US leader to visit both Burma and Cambodia. The whirlwind trip symbolises the growing US 'pivot' to Asia, which places emphasis on reinvigorating ties with one of the most dynamic and fasting-growing regions in the world. While Washington hopes to foster closer economic ties with Southeast Asia to promote increased trade and investment, the primary goal of the US 'pivot' is aimed at countering China's growing influence and clout in the region. Southeast Asian leaders have largely welcomed this new US geostrategic engagement amidst growing wariness over China's expanding power, exacerbated by tensions over territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Distracted by conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan, the US cast wary glances at China's rapid inroads in Southeast Asia. The 'pivot' is designed to reverse decades of absence from the Asia-Pacific and boost US presence in the strategically important region. A heavyweight regional player during the Cold War, Washington D.C. aims to strengthen its current regional presence and influence through the twin policies of promoting closer military ties with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries and encouraging closer economic integration through the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which excludes China.

The Military Dimension

For a region that is overshadowed by China's burgeoning military clout, Washington's military overtures come as a timely boost. Preceding Obama's visit to Bangkok, the US and Thailand signed a joint statement on a new security partnership between the two old military allies. The statement called for the strengthening of the bilateral partnership to promote peace and stability in the region and for increased bilateral and multilateral interoperability between the two militaries. The reinvigoration of the Thai-US military alliance comes amidst China's growing political, economic and military ties with Bangkok. Unlike its neighbours, Thailand is not locked in territorial disputes with Beijing over the South China Sea. In addition to robust political and economic engagement, Sino-Thai defence ties have blossomed in recent years with greater interaction between senior military officials, joint military exercises and even joint production of weapons systems. The reinvigoration of US-Thai defence ties aims to fulfil two objectives. Firstly, to draw back a traditional military ally from Beijing's close embrace. Secondly, it is targeted to send a message to China that Washington is prepared to take tangible steps in wresting back the initiative in Southeast Asia. Bangkok is clearly basking in the limelight of being courted by two major powers, however the Yingluck Shinawatra administration remains cautious in taking sides in the growing strategic rivalry between the US and China. In clear attempts to placate Beijing over Obama's visit, Thailand welcomed outgoing Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao only days after the US president's trip.

Apart from Thailand, Washington D.C. is also ramping up military to military ties with other traditional regional partners; Philippines and Singapore. Two decades after US troops vacated the strategic deep water Subic Bay Naval Base and Clark Air Base, the Philippines invited Washington to reutilise the old bases in June of this year. Both the allies also agreed to increase joint military exercises with the US agreeing to assist in the modernisation of Manila's ageing military. The agreements came amidst a heated dispute between Beijing and Manila over the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. Manila has traditionally been one of the biggest supporters of increased US involvement in the region. The US and Singapore have reached an agreement to deploy up to four of the US Navy's new class of 'littoral combat vessels' to the city-state for a 10-month deployment in 2013. The new vessels are designed to operate in coastal waters and can be quickly deployed in crisis situations, hinting at a possible combat role in case of a shooting war over disputed islands in the nearby South China Sea.

Washington D.C. already maintains a small post in Singapore that assists in logistics for US forces in Southeast Asia. Despite the expansion of political and military ties with the US, Southeast Asian states are aware that any attempts to contain China are fraught with risks. Beijing is a major economic player in the region, channelling billions of dollars of investment in countries such as Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand, and Burma. It is also the region's biggest trade partner prompting Southeast Asian states to engage in a delicate balancing act in the battle for power and influence between Beijing and Washington. Torn between their economic dependence on Beijing and solid political and military ties with Washington, regional countries such as Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand find themselves walking on a parlous tightrope in their dealings with the two major powers.

Apart from reinvigorating old military alliances, the US is also crafting new ones with emerging players such as Burma. From shunning the military junta for more than two decades due to its grim human rights record, the US has now embarked on a radical policy to improve military to military ties with Naypyidaw. In October, Washington extended an invitation to Burma to attend a major regional US-led multinational exercise, Cobra Gold, as an observer. Led by the US and Thailand, the annual Cobra Gold exercise constitutes one of the largest joint military exercises in the Asia-Pacific. While Burma's participation in Cobra Gold would focus on humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and medical programmes, the development does not mask the fact that Washington's rapprochement with the Burmese military has been carefully calibrated under the umbrella of humanitarian dialogue. The announcement came on the heels of a visit by US Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner to discuss Burma's human rights situation with high level military officials in Naypyidaw. Although this new military-to-military engagement is still in its nascent stages, it is likely that further Burmese political, economic and social reforms will be rewarded with more ambitious incentives, including education at elite US military institutes, joint military exercises and possible arms sales. Naypyidaw has more than welcomed new American overtures to normalise ties in a bid to distance itself from the orbit of its traditional patron China.

Economic Engagement

In tandem with its military outreach, Washington aims to entrench its influence in Southeast Asia through greater economic integration. To accomplish this, the US intends to use the newest weapon in its economic arsenal: the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). First launched on the sidelines of the 2002 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Mexico, the TPP is a free trade deal aimed at further expanding the flow of goods, services and capital across borders in the Asia-Pacific region. Over the years, the TPP has expanded from its original membership of four members to include eleven countries. Four of these members are ASEAN countries, including Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam. In a significant boost, Thailand expressed interest in joining the TPP negotiations during Obama's visit. The US has largely championed the cause of the TPP in a bid to jumpstart its economy through increased trade and investment, especially through greater liberalisation in the services sector.

Despite its size and scope, the TPP has come under fire for excluding China, the world's second largest economy. It has also received a lukewarm response from other regional heavyweights such as Indonesia, who view the TPP as a counterweight to the ASEAN-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a free trade area comprising the 10 ASEAN states plus its six dialogue partners China, India, South Korea, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. The negotiations for the RCEP kicked off during the recent East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh.  The splitting of the Asia-Pacific between the US-led TPP and the ASEAN-led RCEP, wholly endorsed by China, is an extension of the Sino-American bid for influence on the economic front. Reeling under the strain of the South China Sea dispute, a fractured Southeast Asia is likely to face a new flashpoint in the emerging TPP vs. RCEP saga. While this is unlikely to trigger a trade war, an economic tug-of-war between the US and China would force ASEAN members to face the unpleasant prospect of eventually choosing between an intra-Asian integration and an Asia-Pacific free trade area, further narrowing their room to manoeuvre vis-à-vis Washington and Beijing.

The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.


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