US and China vie for control in Asia

Drawing by Dan Pototsky

Drawing by Dan Pototsky

The ASEAN Forum will determine the leader in the race for control over the region.

The meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers in Phnom Penh, attended by the key states in the Asia-Pacific region, is taking place against the backdrop of an intensifying tug-of-war between the USA and China, each of them trying to win ASEAN over to its side. Russia, which has assumed a wait-and-see position, risks being sidelined in this dynamic region.

This week, the focus of Asian politics has shifted to Cambodia, where a four-day meeting of foreign ministers of the ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) started on Monday. The format of the talks and the number of participants will later expand, when the ASEAN foreign ministers are joined today by their counterparts from the USA, China, Russia and other leading Asia-Pacific nations.

Other events to be held in Phnom Penh include the second meeting of the foreign ministers of the countries that take part in East Asian summits, the 19th session of the ASEAN regional security forum, a Russia-ASEAN ministerial meeting and a similar ASEAN-China meeting. The US will be represented by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, China by its Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and Russia by Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov.

Unlike previous meetings, this ASEAN forum is taking place against the background of an unprecedented deterioration in the region’s situation due to the simmering territorial dispute between Southeast Asian countries and China in the South China Sea (see Kommersant, 17 April). Another destabilising factor is the increasingly fierce struggle between Washington and Beijing for leadership in the region. For the first time in many years, this has faced the ASEAN countries, traditionally steering a middle course between world power centres, with a dilemma: whose side to take.

The ASEAN foreign ministers began their work on Monday with a discussion of the rules for settling conflicts between the Southeast Asian countries and China in the South China Sea. Addressing the forum, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said it was a priority to work out a “code of conduct”. The participants agreed that further progress towards creating conditions for preventing conflicts would depend on China’s reaction to ASEAN’s proposals.

“This ASEAN summit will be the moment of truth for the organisation. As the confrontation between the USA and China sharpens, each side assigns ASEAN an important role and is trying to pull the states of the region on to its side”, said Dmitry Mosyakov, Director of the Southeast Asia, Australia and Oceania Centre at the RAS Oriental Studies Institute.

At first glance, the expert says, the USA has indisputable advantages in the struggle for Southeast Asia because there is a growing wish in the region to see the “elder brother” come and protect the ASEAN countries against Chinese expansion. At the same time, China has one, but highly effective counter-argument, and that is its burgeoning economic ties with the ASEAN countries. “Since the creation in 2010 of a China- ASEAN Free Trade Area (CAFTA), trade between China and ASEAN has reached $300 billion and may soon top the $500 billion mark. Considering that CAFTA yields huge dividends for the countries in the region, China has enough leverage to slow down the rapprochement between ASEAN and Washington”, the expert believes.

As for Russia, so far it has taken a wait-and-see position and is not in a hurry to form a strategy for its relations with ASEAN. “Moscow has still not made up its mind whether it should commit itself to bilateral relations with the countries in the region or to partnership with ASEAN as an organisation”, Dmitry Mosyakov explained. “Although some may see pluses in such a policy, the fact that Russia might find itself playing second fiddle in one of the most dynamic regions of the world is a minus.”

The original version is available in Russian at Kommersant.

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