Will US-ASEAN meeting be good for region?

Updated: 2016-02-16 08:21

By Zhu Feng(China Daily)

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Will US-ASEAN meeting be good for region?

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang addresses the 18th ASEAN-China summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Nov 21, 2015. [Photo/Xinhua]

The summit between the United States and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations at the Sunnylands estate in California on Monday and Tuesday highlights the growing significance of the US' relations with the 10-member Southeast Asian organization.

It is an unprecedented meeting between the two sides, as it is the first time that the US has hosted such a summit. US President Barack Obama and his ASEAN guests will no doubt have a lot to say on trade, security and their desire for a more meaningful strategic partnership. And China will certainly be a factor in all their discussions.

The question is in what way will the "China factor" be addressed and will it have a positive bearing on the region.

With China's rise and what is seen as its more "assertive" stance under its present leadership, both sides feel the need to reinforce their security cooperation to hedge against any uncertainties in the region.

Obama's rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific has sought to refurbish its military, economic and political influence in the region to counter a reemerging China.

Obama's rebalancing strategy is taking a ride on some ASEAN members' growing China anxieties. Washington has never been more expected to anchor the regional security order. And Obama sees enhanced ties between the US and ASEAN as part of his legacy.

Nevertheless, "keeping China cornered" would not automatically produce stability and cooperation. China is a major player in the region. Coming up with a policy package to curb contentious security concerns in the Asia-Pacific and manage the lingering disputes will be a real test of the wisdom and vision of leaders throughout the region.

Obama will expectably acclaim the growing economic and trade ties established between the US and ASEAN countries at the summit. US investment in ASEAN has exceeded the sum to China, Japan and the Republic of Korea in recent years, and four ASEAN states are members of the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement. The US' economic ties with ASEAN will predictably scale up. But China will also explicitly benefit from a prospering ASEAN and closer trading ties between the US and ASEAN. Similarly, Beijing's efforts to update the infrastructure in ASEAN countries will in return profit strong economic bonds between the US and ASEAN countries. Therefore, Beijing should look forward to fruitful economic results from the summit.

Beijing's grave concern will be the utterances on the South China Sea from Sunnylands. Last week, the White House acidly warned China that maritime territorial disputes must not involve "bullying". Obama has previously used the word "bully" to describe Chinese behavior in the South China Sea, and the word sparks Beijing's irritation. If Obama is going to project China as a "bully" in the South China Sea disputes at the Sunnylands, obviously it will not help ease the tensions.

What sort of utterances on the South China Sea can be expected? Will the US and ASEAN keep criticizing China, or will they seek a way to accommodate contending concerns while unequivocally proposing a roadmap for settlement? We will have to wait and see.

The author is executive director of the China Center for Collaborative Studies of the South China Sea at Nanjing University.