Asean unlikely to take sides between US, China at summit: Analysts

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Kuala Lumpur, Feb 15 (IANS) A two-day summit will kick off later on Monday between Asean leaders and its host US President Barack Obama at the Sunnylands Centre in California, which is the first such meeting to be held on US soil.

It’s believed that the US government will take the gathering as an opportunity to exert its clout in Southeast Asia against a backdrop of growing Chinese influence in the region, when Obama may wish to reach consensus among all Asean member states to issue a statement on the South China Sea disputes that will touch on China, Xinhua reported.

However, experts said as Southeast Asia has always taken a neutral stance in the tussle between the powers, and there are huge mutual interests and deep cooperation between the region and China, Asean is not expected to take sides between the US and China at the summit.

Although a US State Department official has claimed that the imminent summit is “not anti-China,” China will inevitably be an important topic in the discussion.

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“The issue of South China Sea will for sure be featured in the discussions in the context of the freedom of navigation,” said Tang Siew Mun, head of the Asean Studies Centre and concurrently senior fellow at the Regional Strategic and Political Studies programme at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute based in Singapore.

However, during the summit, while countries like the Philippines may continue to play the victim and urge the Asean to take a hard stance against China over the territorial disputes with the backing of the US, Asean as a whole is not expected to take sides on this issue due to its strong and complicated ties with China.

William Kirby, T.M. Chang Professor of China Studies at Harvard University, said all the attending countries have complex relations with China, most of which are very positive.

Speaking to visiting US Secretary of State John Kerry last month, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said “for the South China Sea issue, we should… try to encourage the countries concerned in the dispute to continue negotiations with each other because Asean has no rights to measure land for any sides.”

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As part of Obama’s Asia-Pacific rebalance strategy, the summit also sees different expectations from its Asean attendants.

“It is hard to say that there is a strong consensus of all Asean countries on what they expect from the US. Some want stronger or more robust presence of the US in the region, while others prefer less,” said Ngeow Chow Bing, senior lecturer at the Institute of China Studies, University of Malaya.

While the minimum consensus is that all will prefer the US to continue to have at least some presence, that presence should not be seen as making Asean countries feel compelled to pick between the US and China, he added.

Ngeow said that there may also be different policy preferences or agendas between the US and Asean for the summit.

“While the US may want to make the summit’s discussions devoted to mostly China-related issues, some Asean countries may expect that the summit can focus on US-Asean rather than US-Asean-China,” he added.

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Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, said the activities by various claimants in the South China Sea have quietened down a lot in recent months, and to some extent the US is trying to refocus a lot of regional claimants’ attention on the South China Sea.

He said the US would win more friends if it focuses more on economic cooperation with the Southeast Asian countries.

Ngeow echoed Oh’s opinion by saying that the US should think more towards economic cooperation with all Asia-Pacific countries (including China) in its “pivot” rhetoric rather than focusing too much on territorial issues.

In this sense, all the countries should think about how to steer international politics in the pacific region towards more cooperation rather than being fixated on territorial issues, he said.

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