Spotlight on Geopolitics

Confronted with the waning of US influence in world affairs, American foreign policy experts and military strategists are currently fanning the flame of conflict between China and ASEAN nations on the one hand, and between China, Japan and Taiwan on the other.

Such diplomatic moves have prompted an angry official reaction from Beijing yesterday. China’s foreign ministry spokesperson has warned the United States not to interfere in or try to internationalise territorial disputes between China and ASEAN member-states such as Vietnam, Malaysia or the Philippines, concerning the sovereignty over islands in the South China Sea (source: Reuters).

The disputes over the Spratly and Paracel islands have been going on for decades, as they are surrounded by rich oil and gas fields. What is highly significant is that the US is trying to wedge in between China and its ASEAN partners now, when these were in a process of forging the world’s biggest trade bloc. This displays its anxiety to retain a foothold in the region and to continue to play a large military-strategic role there.

Thus, in July Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attended an ASEAN meeting on Asian security in Hanoi where she declared that the US has to stay engaged in the South China Sea in order to “protect” ASEAN nations like Vietnam against Chinese bullying on the islands issue. This belongs to the representative of the superpower that had reduced Vietnam to ashes and sprayed its civilians with agent orange only a few decades ago…Her Hanoi statements kicked off the current season of tensions in the South China Sea, which provoked a deterioration of diplomatic relations between China and its ASEAN partners and culminated with yesterday’s angry Chinese official rebuttal.

Meanwhile, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is working hard to persuade the new Japanese political leadership to remain the staunchest American ally in the region, as the latter is making efforts to take its distance from its post-war allies and forge a closer relationship with China. As the recent Chinese fishing boat incident from the East China Sea proves, these US efforts are starting to bear fruit.

Finally, the State Department and military strategists are trying to encourage Indonesia and smaller ASEAN nations to stand up to China, promising them US backing. After Hatoyama’s East Asia Community project and Kevin Rudd’s Asia Pacific Community projects evaporated together with the jobs of the two former premiers, the US now hopes to use a revived 16-nation East Asia Summit (EAS – which includes the 10 members of ASEAN, but also Japan, Australia or New Zealand) to maintain its influence in the region. To the surprise of the international diplomatic community, during the same regional meeting in Hanoi, the Indonesian foreign minister has also “invited” Russia and the United States, former Cold War foes in the region, to join the East Asia Summit, saying :

We are in one mind in recognising that the principal modality for the integration or the involvement or engagement of the Russian Federation and the United States in the region is through the EAS expansion” (source: AFP, 20.07.2010) This initiative is seen by its proponents as a move to counterbalance China’s growing assertiveness in its diplomatic dealings with its East Asian neighbours.

Regardless of the stated intentions, the above declaration simply highlights the inexperience and gullibility of ASEAN diplomats, which make them vulnerable to US designs of preventing the creation of the planned ASEAN plus One trade bloc. In fact, the US should refrain from trying to stunt the emergence of the new trade bloc by unnecessarily scaring away China’s South-East Asian partners and building up competing trade structures like the EAS. If history is any guide, such hostile diplomatic strategies are bound to backfire on the initiator, economically, militarily and geo-strategically.

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