The Delusions of Asian Engagement

There is a tendency in international politics to confuse activity with substance. Witness the Seventh East Asian Summit held in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh in November. The summit involved an impressive array of states, including the ten members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand as well as the USA and Russia.[1] It is the acme of a distinctively Asian model of multilateral diplomacy. There was enough activity on display to give the impression that something substantive would emerge from its proceedings.

In fact, little emerged apart from acrimony, although you would not have known this from most Australian media reports. The summit is, in fact, the last act in an annual, ASEAN-sponsored, process of diplomatic theatre. It has evolved, over time, from the practice of the smaller and weaker states of South-East Asia and their commitment, to a largely rhetorical, consensus-based, non-binding and “non-Western” approach to foreign relations. The opening of the five-day performance begins with the ASEAN group meeting, as it has since 1967, when the group consisted of the foundational states Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines (Brunei joined in 1984). During the Cold War the association was united only by a shared authoritarian politics and an antipathy to communism. After 1990, the group expanded to include one-party communist states Laos and Vietnam, as well as Cambodia, and Burma-Myanmar.

The protocol of these gatherings reflects the insecurity that dominated these post-colonial states during the Cold War. They stress in their conclave good interpersonal relations, consensus and endless rounds of golf. Any difficult intramural disputes are, in the words of a former ASEAN secretary-general, Rudolfo Severino, “swept under the carpet”. As Jose Almonte, former Philippines National Security Adviser, explains: “Divisive issues are simply passed over for later resolution.”[2] Despite its preferred mode of procrastination, regional scholar bureaucrats nevertheless claim that, “ASEAN plays a crucial role in the region’s political, economic and security architecture in the twenty-first century” and has facilitated “co-operation” replacing “conflict as the region’s dominant dynamic”.[3]

After two days of meetings amongst themselves, the North-East Asian states of Japan, South Korea and China join the ASEAN group to discuss issues of wider regional interest. Subsequently, an additional three states, Australia, New Zealand and India join the process. Finally, on the fifth day, rather than creating all living and moving things, Russia and the United States attend the elaborately stage-managed event. These last three acts of the drama reflect regional developments since the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997–98. Asian politicians considered that the international finance markets of London and New York unfairly mugged Asia’s developing economies during that crisis. To prevent this happening again, ASEAN first involved the three North-East Asian states in its machinations about future growth and development. After 2005, Australia, New Zealand and India joined the group to dilute the dominance of the more robust economies of Japan, South Korea, and particularly an economically overweening China.

All states participating in the drama have to sign ASEAN’s foundational Treaty of Amity and Co-operation (TAC). The core requirement of this treaty demands, somewhat paradoxically for a regional arrangement, non-interference in the affairs of individual member states. The paradox reflects the Cold War anxieties that permeated the foundational states at the time the association was formed, and continues to inflect the group’s diplomatic practice.

The fact that Wen Jiabao, Barack Obama, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Najib Razak, Lee Hsien Loong, Yoshihiko Noda and others attend the ritual offers, of course, a networking opportunity. In the case of Julia Gillard and Trade Minister Craig Emerson this means a stage to spruik their much-advertised re-engagement with the Asia century. Interestingly, however, the Russian Premier, Vladimir Putin, decided to miss the event. This might have been bad manners. On the other hand, it could have been prescient, for what exactly apart from posturing did the event actually achieve? Moreover, what does the summit mechanism reveal about the effectiveness of ASEAN-style multilateralism in the new Asian century? 

Economy, acrimony and the Asian Century

The Australian media gave much attention to Julia Gillard and Craig Emerson attending the top regional table. Emerson enthused that as a result of the summit, Australia was now engaged in not one, but two regional economic initiatives, the ASEAN-led, Japanese- and Chinese-backed, Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), and the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA). Emerson claimed that this meant “two pathways to the same destination”. However, this is disingenuous. China promotes the former, the USA the latter. China belongs to the former and not the latter, and the USA, vice versa. The ASEAN-led RCEP actually brings under one umbrella the various bi- and tri-lateral preferential trade deals concluded between ASEAN and a number of regional states. Australia, for instance, signed the Australian ASEAN New Zealand Free Trade Agreement (AANZFTA) in 2009. However, the “free” in these trade agreements is notional. These agreements leave key agricultural and manufacturing sectors protected. The TPPA, by contrast, envisages a far more comprehensive and rule-binding trade agreement, which a number of ASEAN states, as well as China and Japan, resist. In fact, belonging to both groups looks at best like hedging, or worse, like schizophrenia.

Yet, not only is Australia’s regional posture schizoid, the region itself looks increasingly disjointed. Indeed, as the summit in fact demonstrated, the ASEAN mechanisms driving regionalism are fragmenting rather than integrating. If “the key subject of the Summit is trade” as the Australian national broadcaster contended, then it achieved very little. ASEAN cannot even agree on the terms of its own South-East Asian economic community, whose formation, once more, has been postponed until 2015.

The False Promise of Regionalism

However, contra the ABC, the key subject of the Summit, barely mentioned in Australian press coverage, yet widely reported in the region, was the failure of ASEAN to have any positive impact on the region’s increasingly acerbic maritime disputes. As far back as June, the annual ASEAN Regional Forum, formed somewhat optimistically in 1994, to socialise China as a “responsible regional power”,[4] failed to agree even a diplomatic form of words to cover the burgeoning disagreement over a Code of Conduct to address overlapping claims to the resource-rich South China Sea.

Regional academic and media orthodoxy has long held that ASEAN in its enhanced plus-three (China, South Korea and Japan) and plus-six modes (including India, Australia and New Zealand) could craft an East Asian sphere of peace and neutrality based on the defining ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC).[5] In fact, in 2002, ASEAN and China agreed to a Declaration on a Code of Conduct to address the claims of the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Brunei, Taiwan and China to the South China Sea. The Declaration was announced at a time when China’s “good neighbourliness” policy offered the seductive blandishment of its peaceful rise. It represented a critical test-case of whether Asia could resolve its conflicts through ASEAN’s distinctive practice of socialisation.[6]

However, a decade later, no progress has been made on the actual code of conduct or the multilateral means to resolve China’s “uncontestable” claim to treat the South China Sea as a Chinese lake. A much-publicised stand-off between Chinese and Philippine naval vessels near the Scarborough shoals in the Spratly Island chain in April and May 2012 revealed the increasingly fraught nature of this conflict. Meanwhile, in June, China condemned Vietnam’s new maritime law, which declared Vietnamese sovereignty over the Paracel Islands. In that same month, China unilaterally declared a new municipality named Sansha (three sandbanks) in the South China Sea, with Yongxing (or Woody) island serving as the new district’s administrative hub.[7]

At the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Summit in June (as distinct from the East Asian Summit in November) also held in Phnom Penh, these various disputes came to a dramatic head. For the first time in its forty-five-year history, the Association failed to agree even a bland, post-summit communiqué. Cambodia chaired the meeting, and acts as China’s diplomatic proxy. It refused to include a reference to the South China Sea dispute in the final statement. Singaporean Foreign Minister Shanmugam considered the failure “a severe dent in ASEAN’s credibility”.[8]

Predictably, the Australian commentariat played down the burgeoning tension in the region’s only significant multilateral organisation. Predictably, the head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University considered the South China Sea dispute a “storm in a teacup” that would cause Washington to “lose little sleep”.[9] However, the extension and escalation of maritime tension to the Senkaku or Diaoyu islands between China and Japan during August and September suggests otherwise. Territorial conflict is now entrenched in both the South China and the East China seas. Where, we might wonder, are the regional norms of co-operation and peaceful socialisation so vigorously canvassed by ASEAN diplomats and admiring Western scholars over the past two decades when they are most clearly needed?

Then we had the November East Asian Summit. Re-elected US President Obama opined that “it would be an effective leaders level forum”.[10] This was hope rather than experience talking. Indeed, if he had heard departing Party Secretary, Hu Jintao’s keynote speech delivered on the November 18, at the eighteenth Communist Party Congress in Beijing, he would have realized this. Hu called for the party to “resolutely safeguard China’s maritime rights and interests and build China into a maritime power”.[11] A week later, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and China again tried to neutralise debate over the Spratly Islands. Chairing the Summit, Cambodia announced that ASEAN had agreed with China that “they would not internationalise the South China Sea from now on”, and focus instead on “the existing ASEAN-China mechanisms”.[12] Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao further clarified this stance at a closed-door session, asserting that “there is no question over sovereignty” of the Spratly Islands.[13]

Philippines President Benigno Aquino disagreed, reprimanding both China and his Cambodian hosts. Somewhat ominously for the “ASEAN Way” of co-operative diplomacy, Aquino observed that “the ASEAN route is not the only route for us. As a sovereign state it is our right to defend our national interests.”[14] After the Summit, outgoing ASEAN secretary general Surin Pitsuwan worried that “the South China Sea could evolve into another Palestine”.[15] Fanning the flames of discord, Beijing further announced that Chinese passports would henceforth include a map outlining China’s maritime claims. That these claims contradict the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea does not, it seems, unduly bother the Chinese leadership.[16] 

Realism or regionalism?

Given the growing incoherence of ASEAN’s response to a range of security and economic issues, the multilateralist conviction that ASEAN’s shared norms can reconstruct and transform national interests appears increasingly delusional. The region instead needs to return to the first principle of diplomacy, namely that a great power can only be balanced by a great power. The smaller and weaker ASEAN states, as the South China Sea graphically demonstrates, can never balance China alone. China has, in any event, secured in Cambodia a compliant proxy able to exercise a veto on its behalf within ASEAN. The ASEAN states, therefore, need the USA.

Moreover, and contrary to Beijing’s recent protestations, the USA has, since Nixon’s opening to China in 1972, never seriously sought to contain China’s rise. What does concern the USA, however, is regional stability. With regional maritime tensions making the headlines, the US presence is necessary to protect regional freedom of navigation, which China’s actions potentially jeopardise. The Obama administration has a stake both in assuring its allies and protecting its trade with the most vibrant region of the world economy. These are core US interests. Most regional states, apart from China, agree with this posture even if US rhetoric is sometimes less than helpful.

Somewhat ironically, the Chinese also have an interest in a USA that prudently engages and balances their rising power. Nationalists aside, the Chinese realise that the formula for regional stability requires a US regional commitment. Indeed, if the USA disengaged from Asia, regional tension would rapidly escalate. Japan would vigorously re-militarise, and quite possibly acquire nuclear weapons, particularly against a proven North Korean threat. In such circumstances, Chinese confrontation with Japan would intensify, especially as elections in December are likely return a more assertively nationalist government to the Japanese diet. In this context of rising nationalism, the South Koreans would hedge between China and Japan, and the North Koreans would be emboldened. Most significantly, from the Chinese perspective, Chinese nationalism would rise and regional trade decrease, with significant implications for China’s economic growth and internal stability. Such a prospect would threaten China in important ways.

If all this sounds like common sense, it bears noting that common sense has been in short supply in the Asia-Pacific region in recent years. Regional states have prioritised economics over the dictates of strategy and politics. Yet as a popular Chinese saying of the Mao era maintained, the common people have to concern themselves with politics because even if they don’t care about politics, politics cares about them. Twenty-first-century Asia is far removed from the Cultural Revolution, but the principle still applies. Politics is alive and well in the region. Power balances power. Pragmatic, but firm, US regional engagement is needed more than ever. This would prompt a more prudent fifth-generation Chinese leadership to resolve regional conflict, rather than exacerbate it.

Australia’s problematic Asian Century

Where does Australia stand in all of this? It is increasingly clear that the diplomatically-challenged Gillard government misunderstands these emerging regional verities. It has appeared increasingly deluded about the world, the region and Australia’s place in it. The ideological pursuit of a budget surplus leaves Australia strategically vulnerable, confronting a deepening global economic downturn arising from the continuing Eurozone crisis; the prospect of the US economy falling off a fiscal cliff; and the potential hard landing for the growth-oriented Chinese economy. Confronted by these facts and their geopolitical ramifications, the Labor government has continued along a default path that assumes, along with its astonishingly bland white paper on the Asia century, that the region will offer only growth opportunities and limited security challenges. This calculation is not only myopic, it fails to grasp the strategic implications for the region that a rising, but internally conflicted, China has for its regional role, and its relations with its neighbours and the United States.

Since the boom in Australian commodity prices and the rapid improvement in Australia’s terms of trade in the first decade of the twenty-first century, both Liberal and Labor governments have assumed that Australia exists in a world of permanent friends rather than permanent interests. The faith in endless Asian growth, even as the European Union (China’s largest export market) heads for a severe and sustained period of economic restructuring, illustrates the limitations of such optimism. The Asian region that, seen through Bob Carr’s rose-tinted frames, appears as a land of dreams “so various, so beautiful and so new”, promising endless growth and shaped by fashionable non-Western values, could quickly dissolve into a darkling plain swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight. In the increasingly interconnected but by no means integrated Asian century, where ruling elites in Japan, China and South Korea have a worrying tendency to bang the nationalist drum when economies stall and internal tensions rise, Australian diplomats should talk softly, act prudently and carry a big stick. Instead it seems the Gillard government aspires to punch above its weight, talk shrilly at international forums, and carry a rather tiny baton.

David Martin Jones teaches at the University of Queensland, and Nicholas Khoo at the University of Otago. They are co-authors of Asian Security and the Rise of China: International Relations in an Age of Volatility, which Edward Elgar will publish in 2013.

[1] The participants represent 56% of the world’s population, and account for 55% of global GDP.

[2] Jose Almonte, “Ensuring Security the ‘ASEAN Way,’ ” Survival Vo. 39 no. 4 (Winter 1997-98), p. 81.                                            

[3] Singaporean Diplomat Bilahari Kausikan cited in Ricardo Saludo, ‘Crossroads For ASEAN,’ Asiaweek, 12 December 1997. Available at accessed 28 November 2012.

[4] Jusuf Wanadi, ‘ASEAN’s China Strategy: Towards Deeper Engagement,’ Survival Vol. 38 no. 3 (Autumn 19996), p.121.

[5] See inter alia Amitav Acharya, Constructing a Security Community in Southeast Asia: ASEAN and the Problem of Regional Order 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2009); Mark Beeson, ‘ASEAN’s Ways Still Fit for Purpose?’ Cambridge Review of International Affairs, Vol.22 no.3, 2009, pp. 333-342; Dirk Nabers, “The Social Construction of International Institutions: ASEAN + 3,” International Relations of the Asia-Pacific, Vol. 3 (2003), pp.113-136.

[6] Acharya, Constructing a Security Community; Alice Ba, [Re]Negotiating East and Southeast Asia: Region, Regionalism and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009).

[7] According to the official Chinese Xinhua news agency, Sansha’s jurisdiction extends over 13 square kilometers of land and 2 million square kilometers of surrounding waters.

[8] ‘Severe Dent on ASEAN’s Credibility,’ Today, 14 July 2012.

[9] Brendan Taylor ‘Storm in a Teacup over South China Sea’, The Australian 11 May, 2012.

[10] Ben Bland, ‘ASEAN Curb U.S. Regional Security Role’, Financial Times, 18 November 2012.

[11] As cited in accessed 28 November 2012.

[12] Bland, ‘ASEAN Curb’.

[13] Qin Jize, ‘China elaborates on Regional Situation’, China Daily, 21 November 2012.

[14] Ben Bland, ‘Regional Tensions Flare at ASEAN Summit’ Financial Times 19 November 2012.

[15] Ben Bland, ‘Diplomat warns over Asia’s Palestine’, The Financial Times 29 November 2012.

[16] Carlyle Thayer, ‘South China Sea: A Commons for China Only?,’ Yale Global Online, 7 July 2011. accessed 28 November 2012.

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