The 21st ASEAN Summit and its related meetings kick off in Phnom Penh, Cambodia Sunday. The attendance of US President Barack Obama, who was just reelected, has stirred up assumptions about ASEAN politics. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is also attending the summit. It seems there is a contest between China's and the US' strategic expectations for ASEAN.
East Asia is an eventful region, as competing interests of big powers often generate conflict, coupled with the pressure added by China's rise. ASEAN shouldn't get mired in the conflicts of big powers.
The ASEAN Charter signed in 2007 established the goal of integration. ASEAN's political and security integration should be devoted to regional solidarity and peace, and maintaining a favorable environment for regional development. Countries like the Philippines which have territorial disputes with China are attempting to make ASEAN politically antagonistic toward China, and the US and Japan are also inducing a tough attitude from ASEAN on China. These may confuse ASEAN's strategic focus, distracting from economic development as the top priority.
The proposition that countries should rely on the US to balance China is tempting, but ASEAN countries lack experience in dealing with great powers. They may risk becoming the puppet of countries like the US and Japan.
Realistically speaking, it's impossible for ASEAN countries to unitedly confront China. China is the biggest trading partner with ASEAN. Cooperating with China is more urgent than guarding against any "China threat," as there are more practical national interests attached to the former. Even the Philippines must seek a balance between confrontation and cooperation with China. Vietnam also pays attention to not exaggerating territorial disputes with China.
Obama's tour seemingly has a menacing manner, but it cannot change the reality that Southeast Asia is economically tied to China.
There may be some political and military implications in providing encouragement to some countries, but Southeast Asian countries have seen this kind of tempt many times over the past four years, and its effectiveness is fading.
Increased US engagement in East Asia will certainly bring China more trouble. China should try to decrease the apprehension of ASEAN countries and other countries in East Asia regarding China. This doesn't mean China should make compromises in territorial disputes. It should communicate patiently with relevant countries, making them understand China is not an ambitious country, and that a peaceful neighborhood is China's basic expectation.
ASEAN is not China's strategic competitor. The territorial dispute between the Philippines and China doesn't have strategic significance. Any dispute including quarrels between China and ASEAN countries is controllable and will not be a zero-sum game.