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ASEAN Seek to Ease US-China Tensions on Their Own Terms

“Antony Blinken, effectively, threw Taiwan under the bus,” lamented Rebekah Koffler, a former US defence intelligence officer, shortly after the US secretary of state’s visit to Beijing, where he made it clear Washington does not support Taiwan independence.

The outspoken Fox News contributor went so far as to claim that “Xi Jinping will almost certainly be emboldened by Blinken’s announcement … now Beijing will feel more confident that Washington will not even put up a major fight and assist Taipei.”

Michael Pillsbury, another former defence official and staunch Republican, criticised Blinken’s trip as a “huge mistake”, claiming the Biden administration should not appease Beijing and risk its credibility among regional allies.

For the most part, China hawks and US conservatives were deeply critical of Blinken’s June visit to Beijing. Crucially, however, the trip has raised hopes of restoring bilateral institutionalised dialogue and was largely welcomed by regional states, especially in Southeast Asia, which has been at the centre of US-China rivalry over the past decade.

If anything, key Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) members are stepping up their efforts to bolster Sino-US detente. Indonesia, the current Asean chair, chose to relocate a proposed naval drill with fellow Southeast Asian nations away from areas overlapping Beijing’s territorial claims to help ease regional tensions.

The Philippines, a US treaty ally, is pursuing improved relations with Beijing after hosting a Chinese naval contingent in June.

Aware of criticism at home, the Biden administration was quick to emphasise the significance of Blinken’s visit, during which he met top Chinese officials, including President Xi Jinping. Southeast Asian nations appeared to be the White House’s target audience.

To begin with, there was an element of urgency. In the past month alone, there have been at least two major close calls between US and Chinese armed forces, one in the skies over the South China Sea, the other in the Taiwan Strait.

The virtual absence of direct military-to-military dialogue, evident during the recent Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, has only reinforced fears of accidental clashes in Asian waters.

During his meeting with Blinken, Xi reportedly underscored how “the two sides have agreed to follow through the common understandings President Biden and I had reached in Bali”.

The Chinese president was referring to his much-vaunted meeting with his US counterpart on the sidelines of the Group of 20 (G20) summit in Indonesia last year, where both nations agreed to cooperate in spite of inevitable disagreements.

Encouragingly, Biden and Xi may meet in person later this year, possibly on the sidelines of the G20 summit in India in September, and also at the Apec summit in the US in November.

Moreover, the Biden administration was quick to reassure allies against any fears of abandonment. Daniel Kritenbrink, US assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, emphasised how any Sino-US detente is “critically important” for regional security as it is crucial to “prevent the risk of miscalculation”.

He also reassured regional allies such as the Philippines that “we will stand up to and we will counter a range of concerns that we have with Chinese activities, including in the South China Sea and including those directed at some of our key partners and allies”.

Far from fearing abandonment, Asean nations welcomed Blinken’s visit for three key reasons. First, despite their apprehensions about China’s growing naval assertiveness in adjacent waters, key Southeast Asian nations have been critical of US measures aimed at containing China’s rise.

In particular, there are growing concerns about the unintended consequences of the Biden administration’s sanctions on certain critical sectors of China’s economy.

Recognising China’s role in regional production networks, Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan has publicly warned against US economic sanctions. During a high-profile conference last year, he called for nothing short of a new non-aligned movement to ensure regional states are insulated against the impact of a US-China tech and trade war.

The second reason is the unwillingness of even the US’ oldest military ally in Southeast Asia to align against China. While welcoming an expanded US military presence on its soil, the Philippines is intent on maintaining robust ties with Beijing and avoiding a fully fledged conflict between its security ally and top trading partner.

Moreover, the Philippines is in no mood to take on China amid rising tensions in the South China Sea. This explains why, as Blinken visited Beijing, the administration of Ferdinand Marcos Jnr declared that progress had been made over fisheries issues in the contested areas of the South China Sea. Just days earlier, Manila also welcomed a goodwill visit by the Chinese navy in an effort to enhance military-to-military diplomacy.

Finally, Southeast Asian nations are seeking to enhance maritime security in the region without alienating China. It’s perhaps no coincidence that, shortly after Blinken’s visit, Indonesia announced that the Asean naval drills planned for later this year will be relocated away from the North Natuna Sea – where China claims historic fishing rights – to an area less prone to controversy.

Just weeks earlier, Indonesia also hosted both US and Chinese naval contingents during exercises to aid regional military diplomacy. In short, key Asean states are not fearful of abandonment by the US but instead are more intent on facilitating a thaw in US-China regional rivalry on their own terms.

Source: Richard Heydarian for SCMP

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