Strategic jamboree and the US rebalancing in Asia
For the audience in Washington, Assistant State Secretary for East Asia and the Pacific, Kurt Campbell's speech on 26 June at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies was very fitting and calculated. He stressed the US strategy in Asia and highlighted US State Secretary Hilary Clinton's visit to the region with a big delegation including private-public sectors and philanthropies this week after a series of meetings in Phnom Penh during the Asean annual ministerial conference. This time he mentioned quite a few countries in Southeast Asia that were pivotal to the US i.e. Laos, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore Myanmar and of course, the Philippines--the revitalized alliance. He even praised the Philippines, especially President Beningo Aquino as one of the best governments the US has been working with for the past twenty years. Kurt also named the prominent audience he recognized. He happened to be Indonesian Ambassador Dino Patti Djalal. What was conspicuously absent again was Thailand. It was blank.The fact that Kurt forgot to mention Thailand even though the Thai-US strategic dialogue was held less than two weeks earlier in Washington DC which he animatedly discussed with the Thai delegation was a strong indication that all were not well with the prospect of Thai-US alliance. Obviously, the joint statement of their strategic dialogue failed to reflect the reality on the grounds of the much troubled relations.
Washington is once again caught in a Catch 22 situation in these important bilateral arrangements. Two proposals—the humanitarian assistance and disaster relief and the NASA project on climate change—were designed to increase the value of much forgotten ally. Unfortunately, they were politicized to the point that any decent bilateral cooperation was no longer possible between the two countries. If this trend continues, which is highly likely, Thailand will lose further its political and strategic clout as well as harming the Thai-US relations and the latter's overall strategies in Asia-Pacific. Indeed, the US can choose to ignore Thailand at its own perils. To sustain the US rebalancing effort in the Asia-Pacific, all alliances must be functional and operational. At the moment, the Thai-US alliance is an aberration and remains the weakest link of the security chains. For a better outcome at the CSIS forum, he could have urged Thailand to come forth with clear indications what to be expected out of the Thai-US relations in months and years to come. Washington's attitude is notable that until and unless Thailand can overcome it own domestic divides, especially those pertaining to the alliance's obligation, there is nothing much the US can do. Some strategists have argued that the US does not need to rely on Thailand, its key alliance during the Cold War, as before due to the US success in the past two years in repositioning itself in the Asia-Pacific, winning new friends and reinvigorate old friends. Albeit its nearly 180-year old friendship, Thailand is just too unpredictable without any clear direction.
To firm up its position, the US will now further engage the European Union in its pivot to Asia akin to their joint effort in Afghanistan and elsewhere. This is an important strategic shift because the US-EU partnership on political and security matters has been previously confined to the Asean Regional Forum activities and sanctions against Myanmar. Interestingly, Washington's move comes at the time when in their relations with Asean. By collaborating with the US, EU position within the region would be further strengthened. After all, unlike the divergent views policies towards myriads of global issues, the EU views towards the Asia-Pacific remained united and undivided. Like the US, the EU is obsessed with China both in terms of economic and political powers. They want to counterbalance rising China.
At this juncture, EU's standing in Asean is at a low point. Now with the charge of heart in Myanmar, the EU is playing a catch-up game with Asean as a group. At a recent Asean-EU ministerial meeting in Brunei, Asean literally turned down the EU request to jointly issue a statement on Myanmar's latest development because the EU refused to end the sanctions. Worse, Asean also snubbed Lady Catherine Ashton's plan to accede to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation without following the Asean rule of procedures. The EU plan to join the East Asia Summit as soon as possible would be delayed further—impeding the US effort to broaden security agenda in the EAS. She needs to attend more Asean meetings. After years of put-off, Britain finally is scheduled to sign TAC this week in Phnom Penh with an eye for the EAS. Suddenly, the US has found wanting its friends among dialogue partners and Asean as part of the long-term strategy to manage the rise of China right at its backyard. It is also the best of time for the US-led loose coalition within Asean as the news headlines of South China Sea, after decades of benign diplomacy and neglects, has generated streams of bad news and negative images of China. This new psychological bulwark has already put China on the offensive and it will certainly draw China's response in the near future.
To break away from this encirclement within the Asean circuit, China has quickly found a natural friend of the same league—Russia. Russia's third time President Vladimir Putin is also paying more attention to the Asia-Pacific and East Asia Summit. For the first time since it joined the leaders' meeting of Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, Moscow will play the host in Vladivostok in October with a strong message—Russia is a Pacific power and it is here to say as well. From now on, Moscow will be missile-zoomed at the ARF and EAS forums. After two decades of inertia, Russia has mustered enough confidence to submit a new proposal to Asean on a code of conduct for Asia-Pacific to boost security cooperation—a habit the former Soviet Union used to do. Russia will discuss the proposal, which China expressed support, with Asean this week in Phnom Penh.
With more assertive US and EU, China, Russia, Asean has to get its acts together otherwise the fulcrum, which has made Asean valuable and attractive to world leaders, will turn into an entrapment with no exit strategies. It is remaining to be seen how the upcoming East Asia Summit in mid-November will play out. But one template is clear: the Asia Pacific will be the area of major powers' contestation. For good or for worse, Asean will be on the receiving end. If Asean, with its longstanding lack of commonality on key security issues, knows how to harness and play this new Great Games, then the region's stability and prosperity will continue with marginal collateral damages along the way.