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Asean grapples with the rise of China

The Straits Times | William Choong | Sunday, Apr 27, 2014

After their first meeting in Slovenia in 2001, then United States president George W. Bush said he had looked Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in the eye and was "able to get a sense of his soul".

Fast-forward 13 years, and Mr Barack Obama has seen Mr Putin's soul - and much more. In the past weeks, military forces loyal to Russia have overtaken Crimea in southern Ukraine and sparked the biggest confrontation between Russia and the West since the cessation of the Cold War two decades ago.

Russia's actions in Crimea surprised the Americans and Europeans. For years, the Europeans thought a more democratic and free-market-oriented Russia would integrate into the global community and, as a result, develop a modern allergy to the use of force.

The events unfolding in Ukraine might be far removed from Asia, but their implications bear directly on Asia and ASEAN in particular, given that the latter is in the driver's seat in building a slew of institutions to foster regional order and manage China's emergence.

Like the European approach to Russia, South-east Asians believe China can be "socialised" into regional institutions such as the ASEAN Regional Forum and the ASEAN Ministers' Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus). By weaving China into an interlocked web of shared norms, China can be convinced to preclude the use of force in its interactions with its smaller neighbours.

Like the Europeans on Russia, South-east Asians believe China would be unlikely to come to blows with Japan over the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. After all, the two countries' economies are highly interdependent, and any conflict would entail dramatic losses in economic welfare and regional stability.

Like Russia, however, China has not and will not shy away from the use of force. It has been two years since Chinese paramilitary forces locked out the Philippines from the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea.

Last month, Chinese Coast Guard vessels blocked two Philippine ships attempting to resupply marines on Second Thomas Shoal.

The number of incursions into the Senkakus - as the islands are known in Japan - by Chinese government ships has also gone up. Last week, China seized the Baosteel Emotion, a Japanese-owned cargo ship, in a dispute with China over pre-war debt.

All this begs the question: Given that China, like Russia, is building its "China dream" on a narrative of recovery from its much-vaunted "century of humiliation" at the hands of Western powers, what can ASEAN do in the face of further displays or use of force by China?

The answer: Not much really. Put simply, missives would do little in the face of missiles.

Granted, ASEAN can take comfort in America's "rebalance" to the Asia-Pacific. As the historical guarantor of Asian security and prosperity, Washington could be counted on to provide a backstop against Chinese assertiveness.

But as my colleague Christian Le Miere writes in Survival, the rebalance remains modest, given domestic financial pressures in the US and continuing commitments in the Middle East. More importantly, it is not a given that the US would act on its alliance commitments to the Philippines and Japan - two countries involved in territorial disputes with China.

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