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Will SE Asia become a battleground?

(Global Times)

09:50, July 23, 2012

Recently the foreign ministers of China and the US met with their ASEAN counterparts in Phnom Penh. Several thought-provoking questions were raised. First, are China and the US competing for influence in Southeast Asia? Second, can Southeast Asia manage this competition without compromising ASEAN's neutrality and jeopardizing regional peace? Third, will China and the US turn Southeast Asia into a battleground?

First, China and the US are certainly competing for influence in Southeast Asia. They are, however, not alone in this competition. Japan, India, Russia and the EU are also involved.

Who is ahead? It is hard to say. In the area of trade, for example, China has become the top trading partner for some ASEAN countries. In recent years, China has also substantially increased its FDI in ASEAN, especially in Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam, Myanmar and Cambodia. As for overseas development assistance (ODA), my impression is that, in recent years, China has overtaken Japan as the No. 1 provider of ODA to ASEAN. In the area of peace and security, the US remains the pre-eminent military power. The US also enjoys great prestige because of its attractive soft power. Many in the region look to the US for comfort when faced with China's challenges.

But the US has lost a lot of ground in Southeast Asia in recent decades. I think one of the objectives of the pivot to Asia is to recover lost ground. But can this lost ground be regained?

Second, individual ASEAN members have their own foreign policies. Some are closer to China. Others are closer to the US. ASEAN, as a group, is non-partisan and does not wish to take sides. ASEAN members are fully aware they must remain neutral. The perceptions by some in China that ASEAN is pro-US and by some in Washington that ASEAN is pro-China, are mistaken.

However, can ASEAN remain neutral when four of its members have disputes with China in the South China Sea? These are Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. The remaining six members of the ASEAN family have not endorsed the claims of the four claimant states.

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