THE UNITED STATES AND CHINA IN SOUTHEAST ASIA: Conflict or Convergence?

Article excerpt

The year 2009 witnessed important initiatives by the United States and China in Southeast Asia. Evidence of some sharpening of Sino-American competition to protect interests and project influence in Southeast Asia grew amid a broader pattern of mixed divergence and convergence in Sino-American relations over such important international concerns as the global economic crisis and recession begun in 2008, climate change, the armed conflicts, instability in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Iran's and North Korea's nuclear weapons development.

On balance, the leaders of both countries remained committed to a path of constructive engagement that has marked Sino-American interchange since early in the decade. Differences over various issues, including respective efforts to improve influence and protect interests in Southeast Asia, have tended to be dealt with through various private channels or formal "dialogues", out of the public limelight. Neither side has taken steps in their respective foreign policy initiatives that would seriously jeopardize the positive stasis that has developed in relations between the American and Chinese governments.

Many significant differences and strongly competing interests remain in U.S. -China relations, including in Southeast Asia. They feed deeply rooted mutual suspicions and impede progress in developing closer U.S. -China relations based on mutual trust. But the positive benefits of Sino-American engagement, ever closer mutual interdependence in U.S. -Chinese interests, especially in economic development, and massive preoccupations of both leaderships with other problems at home and abroad mean that neither the United States nor the Chinese government appear to see its interest well served with a disruptive confrontation with the other. This balance of interests foretells continued careful management of SinoAmerican differences in Southeast Asia as the United States and China pursue initiatives and compete for influence in the region.

RECENT SOUTHEAST ASIAN DEVELOPMENTS

U.S. Initiatives and China's Response

The incoming administration of President Barack Obama wasted little time in notifying the region and the world that the United States was "back" in Southeast Asia, pursuing active engagement. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton committed to attending regularly the annual ministerial meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum (ARF), which her predecessor had missed as often as not. The United States joined ASEAN's Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in a step that improved U.S. relations with Southeast Asian countries and offered possible U.S. participation in the Asian Leadership Summit conveyed by the ASEAN-anchored East Asia Summit forum.1

A shift toward greater official U.S. engagement with the reclusive military junta in Myanmar modified the seemingly ineffective U. S. -supported pressure and isolation on account of the junta's repression of democracy and human rights. The engagement also saw greater U.S. official contact with leading political oppositionist and Nobel Laureate, Ang San Suu Kyi, who seemed to support greater U.S. contact with the military regime. And it permitted President Obama's meeting with leaders of the ten ASEAN countries during his trip to Singapore for the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders meeting in November.

Avoiding prominent opposition to the U.S. moves, Chinese official commentary nonetheless showed ambivalence in reaction to stepped up U.S. activism in Southeast Asia. Official Chinese media placed the spotlight on U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during the ARF foreign ministers' meeting in Thailand in July, with a Chinese official expert in Southeast Asian matters saying that this year's foreign ministers' meeting gained "global attention" when the U.S. Secretary of State attended the meeting and signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation with ASEAN members; the U. …