ASEAN countries including Pakistan not to take sides between U.S., China in upcoming U.S.-ASEAN Summit

KUALA LUMPUR: A two-day summit will kick off on Monday between ASEAN leaders and its host U.S. President Barack Obama at the Sunnylands Center in California, which is the first such meeting to be held on the U.S. soil.

It’s believed that the U.S. government will take the gathering as an opportunity to exert its clout in Southeast Asia against a backdrop of growing Chinese influence in the region, when Obama may wish to reach consensus among all ASEAN member states to issue a statement on the South China Sea disputes that will touch on China.

However, experts said that as the Southeast Asia traditionally have taken a neutral stance in the tussling between powers, and there are huge mutual interests and deep cooperation between the region and its most important neighbor China, ASEAN is not expected to take sides between the United States and China in the summit, and the China-ASEAN ties will not be affected.

Although a U.S. State Department official has claimed that the imminent summit is “not anti-China,” China will inevitably be an important topic in the discussion.

“The issue of South China Sea will for sure be featured in the discussions in the context of the freedom of navigation,” said Tang Siew Mun, head of the ASEAN Studies Center and concurrently senior fellow at the Regional Strategic and Political Studies program at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute based in Singapore.

However, during the summit, while countries like the Philippines may continue to play the victim and urge the ASEAN to take a hard stance against China over the territorial disputes with the backing of the United States, ASEAN as a whole is not expected to take sides on this issue due to its strong and complicated ties with China.

William Kirby, T.M. Chang Professor of China Studies at Harvard University, said that all the attending countries have complex relations with China, most of which are very positive.
Speaking with visiting U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry last month, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said “for the South China Sea issue, we should … try to encourage the countries concerned in the dispute to continue negotiations with each other because ASEAN has no rights to measure land for any sides.”

As part of Obama’s Asia-Pacific rebalance strategy, the summit also sees different expectations from its ASEAN attendants.

“It is hard to say that there is a strong consensus of all ASEAN countries what they expect from the United States. Some want stronger or more robust U.S. presence in the region, while others prefer less,” said Ngeow Chow Bing, senior lecturer at the Institute of China Studies, University of Malaya.

While the minimum consensus is that all will prefer the United States to continue to have at least some presence, that presence should not be seen as making ASEAN countries feel compelled to pick a side between the United States and China, he added.

Ngeow said that there may also be different policy preferences or agendas between the United States and ASEAN for the summit. “While the United States may want to make the summit’s discussions devoted to mostly China-related issues, some ASEAN countries may expect that the summit can focus on U.S.-ASEAN rather than U.S. -ASEAN-China,” he added.

Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, said that the activities by various claimants in the South China Sea have quieted down a lot in recent months, and to some extent the United States is trying to refocus a lot of regional claimants’ attention on the South China Sea.

He said that the United States would win more friends if it focuses more on for example economic cooperation with the Southeast Asian countries.

“If U.S. so-called rebalancing to Asia or pivot to Asia is anchored more on the economic front, we will certainly welcome that,” he added.

Ngeow echoed Oh’s opinion by saying that the United States should think more towards economic cooperation with all Asia-Pacific countries (including China) in its “pivot” rhetoric rather than focusing too much on territorial issues.

In this sense, all the countries should think about how to steer international politics in the pacific region towards more cooperation rather than being fixated on territorial issues, he said.

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