The View From Asia

Regional power equations raise worry

Military displays, meetings and strategic moves seem to have stoked concerns over regional affairs. Two commentators in Asia News Network papers examine recent developments. Here are excerpts.

US-China summit: Asean centrality at risk

Kavi Chongkittavorn, The Nation

There are reasons why Asean leaders must pay serious attention to the outcome of the most anticipated state visit to the United States by Chinese President Xi Jinping and his summit with US President Barack Obama later this month.

Their tete-a-tete will have far-reaching repercussions for the region.

Much is at stake for Asean when the two heavyweight players use the current dispute in the South China Sea to pre-position themselves.

Since the end of World War II, the US' military might and presence have never been challenged by any power. However, with China quickly rising to become the world's No. 2 economy, the US is looking for the most effective way to respond to this new situation.

China has sought to seize the moral high ground on issues such as the refugee crisis in Europe, castigating Washington for triggering instability and civil wars through its policy of regime change in the Middle East. In Asia, which China sees as its own backyard, it has fanned the flames of animosity towards Japan, emphasising atrocities committed in the 1930s and 1940s.

Diplomatically, the two superpowers share the view that the maritime conflict should be resolved peacefully through negotiation and consultation. They strongly support the ongoing process to come up with a code of conduct in the South China Sea.

However, from a strategic perspective, Washington has taken Beijing to task over its land reclamation throughout the first half of this year.

Meanwhile, China has repeatedly reassured Asean leaders that it would not jeopardise freedom of navigation and air flights in the disputed area, where its major economic lifelines lie.

China hopes Mr Xi's visit will be able to establish the kind of strategic trust that can help ease tensions in the South China Sea as Asean and China work on the code of conduct under the coordinating role of Singapore (from this year to 2018).

While US and Chinese leaders are talking, Asean must get its house in order to make sure it retains the process and narrative of the South China Sea disputes - it is the only way to strengthen Asean centrality.

For the first time, the Asean joint communique issued at the end of its 47th annual meeting early last month mentioned "disagreements" among Asean ministers - a departure from the past.


In its grand military parade in Beijing to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II earlier this month, China showed that it wants to be viewed, not just as an economic power, but also as a major military and diplomatic player. PHOTO: REUTERS

Previously, the Asean members would sweep their differences under the carpet. Now, some of them prefer to dramatise and wash their dirty linen for all to see. This could be the grouping's Achilles heel in months to come.

Within the grouping, the Philippines has been the most enthusiastic in inviting the US as a countervailing power, while other conflicting Asean parties are more discreet. Manila continues to view Asean as a paper tiger and wants to push its colleagues towards tougher stances and actions.

As a "conflicted party" to the South China Sea dispute, Kuala Lumpur has pursued quiet diplomacy with firm positions. As a former comrade in arms (with China), Vietnam has an extra party-to-party channel to tackle mutual concerns and trust deficits. Hanoi often backs a strong role for Asean. Meanwhile, considering its size, Brunei has enjoyed good cooperation with China over their disputed claims.

Finally, Asean must be able to connect with the two heavyweight countries' core interests and strategic engagements, which have many facets and feature a broad range of issues. At this juncture, the South China Sea dispute commands their interest, enabling Asean to observe how the parties manoeuvre their core interests.

Any effort by either power to manipulate regional or potential conflict for hegemonic ambitions must be strongly resisted.

As Mr Xi and Mr Obama meet for the crucial talks, Asean leaders must send a strong message that the two countries have to follow Asean's lead and its code of conduct - as exemplified in the 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation - if they want to operate in the region. Their strategic trust must be Asean-centred.

Japan ahead in popularity contest

Frank Ching, The China Post

China showed in its Sept 3 military parade that it wants to be viewed, not just as an economic power, but as a major military and diplomatic player as well. And, while it trumpeted its desire for peace, the display of its military prowess is bound to spur concern in other capitals.

China has sought to seize the moral high ground on issues such as the refugee crisis in Europe, castigating Washington for triggering instability and civil wars through its policy of regime change in the Middle East.

In Asia, which China sees as its own backyard, it has fanned the flames of animosity towards Japan, emphasising atrocities committed in the 1930s and 1940s.

This message came loud and clear from the military parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. And yet, aside from South Korea, whose president, Ms Park Geun Hye, attended the parade, China has little to show for its efforts.

In fact, the latest Pew Research Centre survey of 15,313 people in 10 Asia-Pacific nations and the US, conducted from April 6 to May 27 this year, shows that "despite historical and territorial frictions, Asia-Pacific "publics" tend to view regional neighbours in a positive light, with Japan judged most favourably, said Mr Bruce Stokes, the centre's director.

"Japan enjoys a relatively positive image, except in China and South Korea," he wrote.

While 57 per cent of the region's public have a favourable view of China, that number is dwarfed by the 71 per cent with a favourable view of Japan. Slightly more than half - 51 per cent - have a favourable view of India.

Interestingly, however, as Mr Stokes wrote in an article posted on the Pew website, "these same publics also express limited confidence in the region's most prominent national leaders when it comes to their handling of international issues".

Asked about confidence in foreign leaders' ability to "do the right thing regarding world affairs", only 43 per cent indicated confidence in Japanese leader Shinzo Abe, 47 per cent in Chinese leader Xi Jinping, and 39 per cent in Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

One source of unfavourable ratings for China is its territorial disputes.

A majority of the public in the Philippines, Vietnam, Japan and India - all of which have territorial disputes with China - indicated that they were very or somewhat concerned by these disputes.

It is difficult to assess the practical impact of China's popularity, or lack thereof, on its neighbours, but China has suffered several reverses recently.

Myanmar some years ago surprised many by suspending China's Myitsone dam project; Sri Lanka suspended a US$1.4 billion (S$2 billion) Port City project after a new president assumed office; in another blow to China, Bangladesh last month indicated that it favoured Japan for an US$8 billion port and power plant, and Indonesia, which reportedly was leaning towards China rather than Japan for a high-speed rail system, decided last month to abandon the project.

Other countries judge Japan - and China - by what happens today rather than what happened several generations ago. China should do the same thing.


• The View From Asia is a weekly compilation of articles from The Straits Times' media partner Asia News Network, a grouping of 22 newspapers. For more, see www.asianewsnet.net

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 19, 2015, with the headline 'Regional power equations raise worry'. Print Edition | Subscribe