Asean searches new strategic ties with US and China: The Nation columnist

US President Barack Obama meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the start of the two-week climate summit on Nov 30, 2015.
US President Barack Obama meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the start of the two-week climate summit on Nov 30, 2015.PHOTO: REUTERS

Kavi Chongkittavorn

The Nation/ Asia News Network

This year promises to be the best year for Asean and China, as their relations enter the second quarter-century or "diamond decade" (26th year of relationship anniversary) - as China would put it. However, it seems for now, other events have stolen its thunder. One is the upcoming special summit hosted by the outgoing US President Barrack Obama for the Asean leaders at the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California on February 16-17. It could be hailed as an historic moment for Asean-US relations and a farewell gathering with his regional counterparts for a popular American president. Doubtless, the venue was chosen deliberately to heighten the value of this symbolic gathering. After all, it was here two-and-half years ago that Obama welcomed Chinese President Xi Jinping and forged a new type of major power relationship with China. Obama is doing the same with the Asean leaders in coming weeks. He wants to make sure he leaves the Oval Office with a stronger Asean-US relationship in place, as never before seen both in economic and security areas.

In more ways than one, Obama has already succeeded. His foreign policy legacy that received bipartisan support lies in Asean, not elsewhere.

His policies on Iran and Cuba received mixed and partisan support. Normalisation with Myanmar and its subsequent democratisation since 2011 have decorated the Obama Administration's diplomatic record with flying colours. To get four out of ten-member Asean nations to be founding members in the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) was a breakthrough. Washington's tough talk and spin on the freedom and safety of navigation throughout last year and last week in the South China Sea won much kudos from the Asean members. It is at times like this that Asean often finds the US wanting. As always, it was time and issue sensitive. Unlike the previous president, the Asean leaders found Obama affable and humble. So, they were more supportive of him and his overtures.

For example, even though his invitation for them to meet in California came late in October, he was able to fix the dates well ahead of time, much to the chagrin of China and Russia, which planned for their summits much earlier in the year. Strange as it may sound, at the April summit in Kuala Lumpur last year, there was no indication whatsoever to show Asean and the US would do anything special, especially during the last stretch of Obama's lame-duck presidency. At the time, Asean had no intention of according Washington the special status of a strategic partnership. New Zealand would be the only new strategic dialogue partner as of last year. But by the November summit, Asean had decided to elevate the US to be the grouping's seventh strategic partner. Once it was clear that Obama wanted them to come for a special meeting to talk on economic and maritime security co-operation, they were all affirmative. Recently, Russia decided its commemorative summit with Asean would be held in Sochi on May 19-20, while China will settle for the 25th commemorative summit as a back-to-back with the Asean one in Vientiane in early September.

During his two-term presidency, Obama has established the kind of rapport with the Asean leaders that no other American president has accomplished. Naturally, they did not have the opportunity Obama enjoyed during his presidency of engaging Asean. Although the US was among the first dialogue partner of Asean, it did not have a consistent policy to earn the strategic partner status like China, Japan, Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand. When the president skipped the second Asean-US Summit in 2013 in Bandar Seri Begawan at the last minute, due to US domestic turmoil, there was a huge cry of disappointment. After all, Obama was pivoting his diplomacy towards Asia.

However, since then, he has managed to make a quick recovery. Indeed, during his second administration, it was Obama who really carried the weight on Asean-US relations. Without his pitching for the summit himself, the California rendezvous would not have been possible. He is also planning a separate trip to Myanmar and an official visit to Vietnam during the second quarter.

Unfortunately, US Secretary of State John Kerry still has not connected with the Asean leaders as Obama has been able to do. He does not have the elan of his predecessor, Hilary Clinton. He came to the Asean meetings and did not leave any lasting impression. He finally managed to visit Cambodia and Laos. He prefers to engage non-Asean leaders and is enmeshed in complicated politics in the Middle East and Europe, where he feels much more at home. Rightly so, from now on the name of Obama would be evoked whenever Asean-US relations were mentioned.

In contrast, the Chinese leaders have all done the pitching in their own ways. President Xi Jinping first outlined the earlier version of the "Belt and Road Initiative", which has undergone numerous face-lifts. Premier Li Keqiang proposed the 2x7 formula for future Asean-China ties. Foreign Minister Wang Yi last year put forward a 10-point proposal to rejuvenate friendship with Asean. Some Asean countries are expecting President Xi to attend the 25th anniversary of the Asean-China ties in Laos, given Xi's pro-active diplomacy towards the region. In the past, the Chinese presidency was more ceremonial. However, after the economic reforms that took place three decades ago, the current presidency in China has become more active in running the affairs of state. Back in the old days, it was the Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, who did all the diplomatic talking with foreigners. His memorable role in the Bandung conference was well documented. Since then, the position of premiership has become more powerful. So, it is a division of labour of sorts. This situation represents a huge challenge for Asean to come to grips with all Chinese initiatives, as there are plenty.

So this year has been designated as the "Year of China-Asean Education Exchange". Both Asean and Chinese officials have begun talks on how to promote education and training of international production capacity to complement the development strategies and community-building in Asean.

Last year was the "Year of Asean-China Maritime Cooperation," but the daily headlines in global media failed to reflect this significant label. Asean was also hoping that with "intensified substantive discussions", the code of conduct in the South China Sea should be advanced further. At this juncture, it is still a no-no. One Asean member even urged China to complete the code of conduct negotiations within this year to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Asean-China relations.

The next five years will be pivotal for the deepening of the Asean-China strategic partnership amid the fierce competition of the major powers. The manner in which both sides implement their 263 measures in the 23-page plan of action, agreed last November, will determine if their relations could be further developed into a more comprehensive and trustful strategic partnership.