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View that US should balance China ‘could mar Washington-ASEAN ties’

SINGAPORE — One of the factors that may undermine the United States’ relationship with South-east Asia is how the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) wants to drive the evolving regional architecture but also expects Washington to balance the rise of Beijing in the region, said an expert on America-Asia relations yesterday.

SINGAPORE — One of the factors that may undermine the United States’ relationship with South-east Asia is how the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) wants to drive the evolving regional architecture but also expects Washington to balance the rise of Beijing in the region, said an expert on America-Asia relations yesterday.

“We (the US) do best to the region by having a calibrated relationship (with all parties). South-east Asia is always telling us it does not want a choice between China and the US. But South-east Asia is often trying to press us into choices,” said Dr Satu Limaye, director of the Washington-based East-West Center.

He was responding to a question on the extent to which Washington can work with Beijing in the region, following a public lecture at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute on “US-ASEAN Relations on the Eve of the Sunnylands Summit”. Dr Limaye said that “the US and China have to work very hard to not be entrapped in choices”.

The two big powers have been at odds over China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea and the US’ refusal to participate in the Beijing-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, citing concerns over transparency, among other issues.

During his lecture, Dr Limaye noted that the multilateral environment in Asia has become more complicated as more institutions are created.

ASEAN has positioned itself at the centre of an evolving regional political architecture through a dense network of dialogue relationships with its partners, including the ASEAN Plus One, ASEAN Plus Three (China, Japan and South Korea) and East Asia Summit (China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, India, the US and Russia) as well as the ASEAN Regional Forum — a security dialogue comprising more than 25 countries.

“ASEAN has now become very internationalised. But in the process of the internationalisation, it has also become quite strategically exposed to the vicissitudes of the great powers themselves,” noted Dr Limaye.

He said ASEAN now has to deal with a lot of players in the region and has to get the balance right in engaging all parties, adding that more thought should be given to how to make these multilateral institutions more effective so that the next US President can recognise their value.

Referring to how some ASEAN member states are believed to view Beijing as an economic partner and Washington as a security partner, Dr Limaye urged ASEAN to go beyond this “simplistic” dualism. He said the US was more than just a security partner for the region, given the significant economic, educational and technology exchanges over the years between America and the region.

Dr Limaye was speaking ahead of the US-ASEAN Special Summit hosted by President Barack Obama in Sunnylands Estate, California, from Feb 15 to 16. Mr Obama, who steps down early next year, has pivoted the US’ foreign policy towards Asia and, under his leadership, the US has acceded to ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation and joined the ASEAN-led East Asia Summit.

During the 27th ASEAN Summit and Related Summits held in Kuala Lumpur in November, ASEAN and the US elevated their ties to a strategic partnership. Washington is keen to leverage on its comparative advantage in innovation and pursue closer economic ties with ASEAN — the world’s seventh-largest economy.

Commenting on the possible outcomes of the Summit, Dr Limaye said there is unlikely to be a long diplomatic document given the informal nature of the discussions. But he expects some announcements related to trade and investments.

Dr Limaye said another potential fault line in US-ASEAN ties is democratisation in South-east Asia.

The issues of democracy and human rights are “getting the most criticism right now in terms of the (Obama) administration’s approach to South-east Asia … It is a really important issue in the Congress and in civil society”, he said.

“It is very difficult for the US to have a full relationship with Thailand when it has a military coup. It is very difficult for the US to move forward with Vietnam when it has human rights and democracy issues,” added Dr Limaye.

He said if ASEAN member states do not improve their record in democracy and human rights, it would be difficult for the White House to justify its enhanced engagement of the region.

“It does not mean zero relations (with these countries). We had a Secretary of State in Laos (last week) but the missing human rights campaigner, Mr Sombath Somphone, that’s a problem for our members of Congress and our citizens,” he said, referring to a Laotian activist for sustainable farming and community development who was abducted in 2012 shortly after he challenged massive land deals negotiated by the government.

Mr Sombath is still missing.

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