Editor’s note: Brad Glosserman is executive director of Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based think tank. The views expressed are solely those of the author.
By Brad Glosserman, Special to CNN
Frequently dismissed as a talk shop, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) is in fact one of the key tests of the U.S. commitment to “rebalance” to Asia. The 27-member security forum may be best known for its after-dinner entertainment – most famously then-U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s schmaltzy country and western duet with Japanese counterpart Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka – but the readiness of America’s most senior diplomats to travel halfway round the globe to attend the meet is seen as a critical indicator of Washington’s readiness to engage the world’s most dynamic region on its own terms.
Fortunately, the ARF has begun to assume a significance commensurate with its status as the Asia-Pacific’s only institutionalized security forum. Two years ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told delegates that the United States had a stake in freedom of navigation in the region, called for the peaceful resolution of territorial disputes that dot the South China Sea, and offered U.S. services as a mediator. That statement infuriated Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, who left the meeting and returned to imperiously point out that “China is a big country…and other countries are small countries and that is just a fact.” Clinton’s speech, and U.S. foreign policy more generally, was dismissed most charitably as a distraction – and more ominously as dangerous interference – in regional affairs. (The idea that the U.S. was responding to regional entreaties is considered laughable.)
Then, and since, Chinese officials and analysts have argued that U.S. policy risks a confrontation between Beijing and Washington either by encouraging U.S. surrogates (read: Vietnam and the Philippines) to be more assertive in their claims, or by forcing regional states to choose between the two countries and risking a new Cold War in the region.
The tension between the two countries is the lead story at this year’s ARF, which convened in Phnom Penh last weekend. There, ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the group that chairs the ARF) was unable to reach consensus and issue a joint declaration for the first time in its 43-year history.
The cause of the disagreement? How to refer to China and the territorial disputes in maritime areas. There were behind-the-scenes reports of angry meetings, punctuated by yelling, and the refusal of the chair, Cambodia, to allow language critical of China. Those same reports highlight the considerable economic assistance that Beijing provides Cambodia.
To be fair, ASEAN is working with China to develop a code of conduct to govern those disputes. But that has been in the works for over a decade, and progress is bound to be halting. While rules of the road make sense to keep incidents from escalating to armed conflict, Beijing wants to keep ASEAN (and the ARF) sidelined, preferring to negotiate bilaterally with rival claimants where its size can make a difference. Anything that alters that equation, such as “multilateralizing” disputes or bringing in the United States, is anathema to Beijing.
China characterizes U.S. involvement in the South China Seas disputes – or any other regional problem in which it has a stake – as part of a strategy to contain China. The illogic of that claim, given tens of billions of dollars of U.S. investment and hundreds of billions of U.S. trade, doesn’t register.
American engagement is designed to counter a narrative of U.S. decline in the Asia Pacific. The U.S. strategy to “rebalance” to the region is based on Asia’s increasing relevance to the future of the United States and America’s determination to play its historical regional role as well. Little appreciated is the breadth of the strategy. U.S. engagement is seen as primarily military. In reality, “rebalancing” is first and foremost about “forward deployed diplomacy,” followed closely by economic and cultural engagement. The military dimension is important, but it’s simply the final pillar.
High-level U.S. attendance at the ARF is an unmistakable signal that Washington “gets” Asian concerns. Secretary Clinton’s readiness to join a discussion that may not yield a specific deliverable shows an understanding of, and respect for, regional institutions and priorities. Of course, Washington must do more than just show up – it must provide both leadership and support for regional initiatives. The push for the Trans-Pacific Partnership is a core component of this strategy, as is outreach to Burma and the readiness to respond to changes there. Modernization of U.S. alliances and the embrace of new partners such as Singapore and Vietnam – along with new missions, particularly humanitarian assistance and disaster relief – are also key elements of this approach.
Ultimately, these policies aid both the United States and Asia, enriching the lives of Asians and Americans alike. It’s those concerns that drive U.S. policy – not fear of China.