Southeast Asian elites have expressed doubts over the United States’ ability to retain its regional dominance, especially given the erratic leadership of President Donald Trump and his administration’s stubborn “America First” agenda.
This is what Elliott Gabriel, a former staff writer for teleSUR English and a MintPress News contributor based in Quito, Ecuador, says in his article titled: “US Hegemony Declines as Southeast Asian Nations Pledge Integration with China.”
A decade of often bruising negotiations has led to a new agreement for cooperation, as China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) regional bloc issued a draft document committing to working together, conduct that will govern future talks over the South China Sea.
A 26-page joint communiqué followed a series of meetings in Singapore involving the ASEAN member states plus China and Japan, where the goal of regional economic integration was laid out along with the need for cooperation to weather the potential disruptions posed by high technology.
The joint statement read: “We reiterated the priority placed by ASEAN on the RCEP [Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership] as a centerpiece of its external economic relations, particularly at a time of growing uncertainty in global trade.”
The RCEP is a proposed free-trade agreement between ASEAN and Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand.
The statement also conveyed the 11 nations’ firm resolve to “fully tap the opportunities afforded by new technologies and innovation arising from the digital revolution”, as well as to remain observant and responsive to emerging threats like ecological degradation, and unconventional security issues such as radicalization, violent extremism, illicit drugs, transnational crime and cybersecurity threats.
China which has warned against the harmful role of “external disturbances”, will hold with ASEAN hold joint military exercises in October as a means to build mutual trust among the states and enhance the cooperation of navies, according to the statement.
In a draft text, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi noted China’s desire that the ASEAN-China Maritime Exercise become a regularly-held event, but that the war games should not involve extra-regional countries “unless the parties concerned are notified beforehand and express no objection.”
The top diplomat for the East Asian powerhouse hailed the agreement as a breakthrough while warning of the danger posed by outside meddlers.
Wang noted: “Ruling out external disturbances, the deliberation of the code of conduct will speed up and move forward,”
The foreign minister added that the regional bloc and China have proven their ability to maintain regional stability and peace in the South China Sea while forging an ultimate framework of rules that all countries would observe. Wang said: “It is like China and ASEAN countries building a house together. In the past, there were 11 designs from the 11 countries on what this house would look like. Now we have laid good groundwork for a single design of this house.”
China and the Southeast Asian bloc could also collaborate in joint oil and gas exploration in the waters but foreign firms would be excluded in this respect as well, Beijing suggested in the text.
While China’s allies in ASEAN like Cambodia and Laos have sided with Beijing over the territorial disputes, the Philippines and especially Vietnam have lodged protests against China’s moves to change the reality on the ground.
Hanoi was infuriated by Beijing’s moves to place an oil rig in waters it claimed in 2014, as well as its recent transformation of disputed reefs into fortified man-made islands complete with runways, tunnels, advanced weapons systems and other high-tech infrastructure. The draft document contained Vietnam’s criticisms of China’s construction of artificial islands.
Such differences are unlikely to be resolved overnight, regardless of China’s expressed optimism.
As a matter of fact China has come into its own as the US goes on the attack. Beijing’s approach appears committed to eroding the regional dominance of the United States. Since the end of the Second World War, the US has been the foremost military power in the Asia-Pacific region. Washington has frequently weighed in against China amid the contention surrounding the South China Sea.
China has long pointed to the US as the main source of regional tensions, charging the US with meddling in Asian matters through its repeated deployments of warships and jets in the regional waters while attempting to consolidate a new “Indo-Pacific” alliance meant to contain a rising China.
The two are embroiled in a heated trade dispute amid mutual accusations of protectionism and the imposition of tariffs. Recently, the US placed new restrictions on 44 Chinese companies it sees as posing a “significant risk” to its national security and foreign policy interests.
In an editorial published recently in the English-language edition of Global Times, an outlet closely affiliated with the ruling Communist Party of China, the paper urged the Chinese people to maintain a realistic view of the country’s “ability to withstand a comprehensive US trade war.”
Warning against both overconfidence and excessive doubt by public intellectuals, the paper noted: “Under the current circumstances, Beijing has no will to initiate a trade war with Washington, but is forced to fight back strategically. Chinese society has various opinions on the reason why the trade war started, and all these opinions are worth summarizing. However, it needs the solidarity and confidence of all of society to confront US pressure, and fear of the US won’t help.
“… Opening up is a must for China, and the struggle against U.S. hegemony during the process is also unavoidable.”
It is worth noting that regional odds are increasingly in favor of Beijing. Southeast Asian elites have expressed doubts over the United States’ ability to retain its regional dominance, especially given the erratic leadership of President Donald Trump and his administration’s stubborn “America First” agenda of reducing trade deficits with other countries by demanding they drop their protectionism. Traditional allies like Indonesia and Japan have balked at the White House’s domineering approach to these talks.
On the other hand, China’s strength is increasingly seen as a new reality that’s here to stay. Businesses across the region have hoped to attract Chinese investments, tempering their unease and opposition to Beijing’s policies.
Recently, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced a $113 million infrastructure fund for Asia-Pacific development as a part of Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy to counter what it sees as an emerging Chinese leadership role or “dominance” over the region. Pompeo is currently on a tour of Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia where he is expected to lay out the White House’s Southeast Asian regional policy.
Given the apparent consensus on the need for regional differences to remain a regional affair that should be sorted out by locals, Pompeo may not receive the acquiescence to US demands or commitment to its flagging hegemony for which he seems to be hoping.