The annual gatherings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations at the ministerial level in July and summit level in November at the East Asia Summit have become good indicators of Asias volatile geopolitical temperature. It was at the ASEAN Regional Forum in Hanoi,Vietnam,three years ago that the then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton injected America into the growing tensions between Beijing and its Southeast Asian neighbours in the South China Sea. Clintons diplomacy in Hanoi heralded Americas much-debated pivot to Asia a year later.
Since 2010,the US has stepped up its economic engagement in the region and outlined plans to shift forces from the Atlantic and the Middle East to the Pacific waters facing China. The US has also tightened its military alliances with Japan,South Korea,Australia and the Philippines. Its newly vigorous Asian diplomacy included the rapid normalisation of relations with Myanmar,expanded security cooperation with Vietnam,and stronger engagement with Indonesia. The US has also been urging India to beef up its Look East policy.
For years,Washington dismissed the ASEAN meetings as talk shops that did not aim for specific outcomes. After the Clinton intervention in 2010,the ASEAN forums have not been the same. The US secretary of state and the president have made annual diplomatic pilgrimages to the ASEAN and the East Asia Summit,and have actively shaped the results. Meanwhile,the arguments between the US and China,and between Beijing and its Southeast neighbours and Tokyo,have become sharper in annual ASEAN meetings. In 2011,China found itself isolated by US activism on the South China Sea issue. In 2012,China hit back. Working with Cambodia,Chinas strong ally that chaired the meetings during 2012-13,Beijing successfully divided the ASEAN members.
For the first time in its history,the ASEAN ended without an agreed statement,revealing the deepening differences within the forum on how to deal with Chinas rising power and assertiveness in the South China Sea. This year,though,the ASEAN is determined to put across a show of unity in Bandar Seri Begawan,Brunei.
As the ASEAN copes with its internal fissures and the changing external power balance between the US and China,all eyes in Brunei this week are on US Secretary of State John Kerry. In the Chinese media,Kerry has been projected as a vast improvement over Clinton,who was seen as confrontational and is accused of mobilising the ASEAN against China.
Many others in the region are worried for the same reason. They suspect that the new secretary of state might be soft on China and less interested in the pivot to Asia than his predecessor. In his address to the ASEAN this week,Kerry said much the same things as Clinton did three years ago on the South China Sea and reaffirmed the American role in the region.
But not all in the ASEAN are reassured about the depth of American security commitment to the region. For,Kerry seems focused on the Middle East,and the recent US defence budget cuts have raised questions about the sustainability of the pivot to Asia. The region is also wary of Kerrys efforts to cultivate a special relationship with China.
Like Kerry,the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi made his debut at the ASEAN this week. Wang,however,had an easier task than Kerry. Representing the new political leadership in Beijing,Wang removed some of the rough edges that had crept up into Chinas diplomacy towards the ASEAN in the last three years. Wang called for a formal dialogue with the ASEAN states on drafting a code of conduct for the South China Sea. He also proposed stronger trade ties between China and the ASEAN. Wangs softer tone made it more difficult for the ASEAN to quibble with China.
However,the Philippines,which is locked in an escalating maritime territorial dispute with China,was not impressed. At Brunei,it accused Beijing of militarising the South China Sea and violating the earlier agreements between China and the ASEAN. The overwhelming presence of Chinese ships,including military and paramilitary ships,and the issuance of threats,pose serious challenges for the region as a whole,the Philippines declared.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation,Delhi and a contributing editor for The Indian Express