What’s with the recent hoopla surrounding an ASEAN summit where US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seemed to outline a new US policy in the South China Sea and China angrily denouncing her speech as an “ambush”?
Well, it is just that, a new US policy for the South China Sea, one where US asserts its “interests” in the disputed island territories. Washington Hawks welcomed Clinton’s speech as the beginning salvo against China. China denounced it as the new US backed “Asian NATO” to contain China further.
What’s the truth? Who’s the aggressor? What’s the likely outcome?
Well, even the Washington hawks would not deny that they want to “contain China” at the very least, and likely confront China aggressively before China grows too strong. So, at least in that, China is not merely being paranoid in its reaction.
IS this the new US policy to attempt to establish an “Asian NATO”? Perhaps not official US policy, but it sounded like Clinton was hoping that ASEAN member nations would welcome that possibility to balance China’s rising power.
However, contrary to the popular US media reports, ASEAN member states did not all welcome Clinton’s offer.
US media reported that “many” ASEAN nations, including Vietnam, welcomed Clinton’s comments. However, it is well known that the dispute over the territories in the South China Sea has gone on for a long time. China has not changed its claims in the last 6 decades. And majority (more than 1/2) of ASEAN member nations supports the current direction of ASEAN-China negotiations, including a Code of Conduct that China has already signed.
Perhaps very revealing is the comments from Philippines in response to Clinton’s statements. (Philippines is one of the 3 founding nations of ASEAN.) Philippines categorically refused US involvement in ASEAN-China negotiations.
US media seemed to imply that Vietnam’s new “alliance” with US represented the feeling of all ASEAN nations. As backup, they point to the fact that many Asian nations are increasing their spending on military buildup. But let’s pour some cold water on these illusions.
1. Vietnam has wanted for many years to increase trade and better diplomatic relations with US (as much as most Asian nations). The stumbling block was US’s Cold War mentality. Just because US sees a Capitalist Communist China now as a bigger threat than a poorer Communist Vietnam, doesn’t make it that Vietnam suddenly likes US more than China. The economic reality is that Vietnam depends heavily upon China for its trade and foreign investment. And in the era of global recession, China’s influence on Vietnam is far more than military. Vietnam has a staggering 50% debt to GDP ratio. It simply cannot afford to antagonize China.
2. Asian nations’ military buildup is as natural as China’s military buildup. Many of these nations are only recently growing in wealth. It is not a surprise that, like China, these now slightly more wealthy nations would turn their eyes to modernizing their military.
3. Some ASEAN member nations may indeed feel that US can help balance China’s power and influence in negotiations, but that is far from necessarily inviting US to the negotiating table. Because if US (or Russia) sits down at the table, it would turn into a US-China negotiation, ASEAN interests would immediately become secondary and mere bargaining chips between US and China. ASEAN nations are not that stupid.
4. ASEAN will never become an “Asian NATO”. That is a dream scenario, blocked by a long historical memory of Western Imperialism and the Cold War. Unlike Europe, ASEAN nations have never been treated as “equals” by US. Not surprisingly, Philippines, a nation that had the longest history of US colonialism, publicly turned down Clinton’s offer. Even NATO was largely a US dominated organization.
Granted, if actual war breaks out in the disputed ocean, anything could happen. ASEAN could become an “Asian NATO”. Or ASEAN could even fight amongst themselves. But only the foolish would think that China would necessarily be the first aggressor in that conflict. Rest assured, all those new military bought by the ASEAN nations, they are not merely keeping them at home, and none of them are shy about asserting their claims any more than China.
However, things are not as dangerous as US media made them out to be. And US sailing navy ships to Vietnamese docks are no more than symbolic huffs and puffs. (Let’s be honest, there have been more US navy ships that docked in China recently than Vietnam. It doesn’t mean anything practical.)
Of course, Vietnam would love to be able to buy some shiny new US weapons, (so would China.) But still “Communist” Vietnam is still getting blasted by Hillary Clinton for “human rights abuses”, and “Communist” Vietnam is not going to get anything from US newer than the 1980’s. (On the other hand, Vietnam can buy newer military equipment from China!)
But none of this means any kind of increase in US influence in Asia (as US hawks dreamt).
Yes, there is perhaps a more heated territorial dispute between China and its neighbors in the South China Sea. But that hardly translate into a Cold War style standoff between China and a new “Asian NATO”. Nor would it likely lead to it. (It’s simply a silly suggestion.)