Libmonster ID: U.S.-1515
Author(s) of the publication: E. S. MARTYNOVA
Educational Institution \ Organization: University Higher School of Economics

Keywords: ASEAN, US-China rivalry, Myanmar, South China Sea territorial dispute

The U.S.-China rivalry is becoming a major foreign policy challenge for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Many of them continue to depend on the United States for regional stability. But from an economic point of view, for the vast majority of the Association countries, China has become the main trading partner and the largest foreign investor. This dual dependence on the United States and China has become an intractable dilemma for the Association as a whole and for individual member States.

The impact of the complex U.S.-China relationship is most pronounced in the ASEAN members ' approach to territorial disputes in the South China Sea and the growing divisions within the organization itself.


The territorial dispute in the South China Sea is a consequence of the unresolved issue of ownership of these islands after World War II and Beijing's decision in November 2007 to create a new county of Hainan Island province called Sansha, which includes the disputed islands in the South China Sea-Para - rural (Xisha) and Spratly (Nansha)1. In addition to China, Vietnam claims the first place, while Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei claim the second place.2 The ASEAN-China summit held in Hanoi in October 2010 adopted a statement on behalf of all participants, which set out "the commitment to fully and effectively implement the Declaration on Principles of Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea and to strive for the adoption of the Code of Principles of Conduct in the South China Sea (SCM) on the basis of consent".

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Shortly before that, in October 2010, at the session of the ASEAN Regional Security Forum (ARF) in Hanoi, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton voiced Washington's position on the territorial dispute for the first time at a high level. She said that the United States stands for freedom of navigation and compliance with international law in the South China Sea, against the use of force by any of the claimants to the islands. Clinton noted that the United States does not support any of the parties in territorial claims and called for resolving these disputes on the basis of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea 3.

Despite the seemingly calm nature of Clinton's statement, the involvement of the United States in this issue, especially the expression of readiness to help reach agreement on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, caused a negative reaction in Beijing: any attempts to internationalize the conflict are contrary to its interests.

Most Southeast Asian countries are concerned that great-power rivalries and the involvement of the United States in territorial disputes in Southeast Asia could undermine both regional stability and the cohesion of the ASEAN countries. 4 But there is no unity on this issue.

The 21st ASEAN Summit, held in Phnom Penh in November 2012, was marred by disagreements over the approach to the South China Sea dispute. Considering Beijing's position, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, as the representative of the chair country, said that a consensus has been reached in ASEAN that its members will not seek internationalization of this territorial conflict. However, Philippine President B. Aquino denied Hun Sen's statement, stressing that no consensus had been reached.5

The reaction of a number of neighboring countries and the close interest of the United States in the region forced China to soften its line somewhat.

According to Singapore experts, there are both circumstances that contribute to the escalation of the conflict, and factors that prevent the development of a large-scale confrontation.

Factors such as China's overwhelming military superiority over the other contenders for the disputed islands; China's confidence that other great Powers will not interfere in the dispute; the deterioration of relations between rival states; unintended human casualties during minor incidents involving the detention of fishing or exploration vessels; the creation of fortifications or mining operations may contribute to complicating the situation. mineral resources in disputed territories 6.

At the same time, a number of circumstances prevent the situation in the South China Sea from escalating. This includes the generally stable relations between all the contenders for the disputed islands, and the fact that they are gradually becoming more interdependent due to the widespread development of trade, financial and investment flows, and tourism. All parties are interested in the peaceful development of the region as an essential condition for their economic well-being. Various institutions operate under the auspices of ASEAN to promote political dialogue and economic cooperation. Some experts even hope that if China acts too aggressively in the South China Sea, it risks becoming internationally isolated, subject to economic sanctions, and losing foreign investment (such a scenario seems unlikely at the moment). Finally, the United States continues to play a key role in the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region and, in any case, will counter threats to the security of critical maritime communications.7

According to a number of foreign researchers, regional structures can prevent an escalation of the conflict if the US-China rivalry develops on the platforms of multilateral institutions. 8 Others believe that the strengthening of the US naval presence in the Asia-Pacific region will serve as a factor pushing China to pursue a more flexible policy in the region in order to avoid internationalization of the conflict.9

The Obama administration is quite actively involved in the activities of the multilateral institutions of the Asia-Pacific region. However, this does not mean that the United States has abandoned the long-established network of bilateral alliances that is the cornerstone of American policy in Asia. Washington is not only continuing

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Strengthen allied relations with Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and Thailand, but also establish security cooperation with Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, and Vietnam. The latter are not allies of the United States, but under existing agreements, the Americans have access to their ports, military training grounds, and repair bases, which significantly strengthens their military presence in Southeast Asia.

Washington also seeks to develop new forms of cooperation with the countries of the Asia-Pacific region. At the same time, the goal is twofold - to preserve the primacy of the United States in the region and to share the burden of responsibility between the allies for maintaining the status quo. Such a strategy requires taking into account the motivating factors that should unite regional players and increase the importance of the United States for the region. A key factor that Washington is trying to use to implement its "return to Asia" strategy has been the concern of Asian countries about China's growing power and its policies in territorial disputes, especially in the South China Sea.10

At the same time, some experts believe that the US policy towards China cannot be called confrontational. Rather, it can be described as a "risk reduction and profit maximization" strategy. In other words, Washington is pursuing a policy of curbing the growth of China's influence without open confrontation, while at the same time trying to maximize the benefits of stable relations with China. This is a pragmatic policy that can be called classical hedging (insurance against risks). Thus, the United States still avoids actively interfering in the most important areas of Chinese interests-Taiwan, Xinjiang, and Tibet11.


The situation around the dispute in the South China Sea is not only an external, but also an internal challenge for ASEAN. The traditional balancing tactic that the Association has long followed in its foreign policy strategy is currently undergoing serious tests.

Why was ASEAN unable to develop a unified approach on such an important issue?

On a number of issues, the interests of the ASEAN member states do not coincide. There are four main factors that undermine the unity of the Association, and on which the positions of the member countries differ significantly.

First, there is the difference between the original ASEAN members and the new members of the grouping. In 1995-1999, it included Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. When deciding to expand the Association, the original members sought to strengthen their influence in the international arena, as well as to strengthen stability in the region. For the new members, joining the organization was motivated by the desire to maintain the status quo: they were attracted to the traditional Asean principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other States. From an economic point of view, they hoped that joining ASEAN would open up access to foreign markets, as well as encourage the influx of capital and new technologies. Overall, however, the original ASEAN members did little to contribute to the economic development of the new members. Politically, they tried to remove them from the orbit of China's influence, but without the economic component, the result did not meet expectations. Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar (especially, until recently, 12) consider China as the main partner.

Second, there is a clear distinction between more democratic and authoritarian States. The political structure of the ASEAN member states varies from emerging democracies (Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines) and soft authoritarian regimes (Malaysia, Singapore) to hard authoritarianism (Vietnam) and a transitional state structure (Cambodia, Myanmar). There are differences between these groups of States regarding respect for human rights and attempts to revise the Association's principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of its member countries.

Third, some States are in favor of accelerating economic integration, while others are afraid of infringement of their economic sovereignty. Economically developed countries (such as Singapore and Thailand)

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..But many in the region were concerned about tensions caused by Beijing's establishment of an air defense identification zone in the East China Sea. As you can see on the map, in the area of the disputed Diaoyu Islands/Senkaku it intersects with the Japanese air defense zone.

they advocate accelerating integration and promoting free trade. Malaysia and Indonesia are more reserved about the pace and scale of economic integration. The new ASEAN members are also taking a conservative stance on this issue due to economic weakness.

Finally, as noted above, there is no consensus on China's policy and territorial disputes in the South China Sea. In ASEAN's foreign policy, this issue has become critical in terms of testing the Association's strength. The fact that not all members of the organization are parties to these territorial disputes also complicates the development of a collective position.


The differences in the approach of the ASEAN member States to the PRC are due to many factors: This includes the historical background of relations with China, the degree of economic cooperation, and the presence of influential Chinese diasporas. According to Taiwanese researchers, the perception of China by Association countries is primarily determined by issues of national security and economic interests. Depending on the combination of these factors, the policies of ASEAN countries range from hedging and balancing to supporting China.

Countries that perceive China as a threat and at the same time share negative expectations about economic cooperation with China are pursuing a balancing policy. Those states that perceive the PRC not as a serious security threat, but rather as an economically attractive partner, are determined to support China's policy. If a country's exchange rate is affected by one positive factor and the other by a negative one, it is likely that it is inclined to pursue a hedging policy 13.

As practice has shown, many ASEAN countries ' own economic interests have proved to be more important than the security issues of their Association partners. The Organization has not yet been able to develop a common security strategy and establish a system of priorities between the collective and national interests of individual States.14


According to many experts of the ASEAN countries, in order to avoid problems, the organization needs not only to develop a unified position on the problems of the South China Sea, but also to carry out serious institutional reforms within the Association itself. The principle of rotation of the chair country has a negative impact on


Perceptions of China in Southeast Asia


High level of threat from China

Low level of threat from China

Negative economic expectations from cooperation with China



Positive economic expectations from cooperation with China



Source: Chen I. T.-Y., Yang A. H. A harmonized Southeast Asia? Explanatory typologies of ASEAN countries' strategies to the rise of China // The Pacific-Review, 2013 - 2012.759260

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consistency of the ASEAN policy framework and implementation of the decisions taken. Creating a power vertical with certain powers within the organization could significantly strengthen the unity of the organization. However, it is important to develop such a mechanism that does not destroy the "ASEAN principles" that have proven themselves well over almost half a century of history. Given the large number of issues on which the views of the participating countries do not coincide, the leader country should have used a policy of "carrot and stick". At the moment, this seems unlikely.

Given the current inability of ASEAN to develop a coherent strategy on modernization, new approaches to solving this problem are being sought. In order to expand the space for diplomatic maneuver, it is proposed to develop cooperation in the field of foreign policy and security with other, less dangerous partners - Japan, India, as well as the United Kingdom, which still retains close ties with the region15.


Whether the situation changes for the better or for the worse will largely depend on the alignment of political forces in the region, the nature of China's relations with ASEAN countries, and the demand for energy resources.

In the short and medium term, an armed conflict over the islands in the South China Sea seems unlikely, although there are risks of incidents and local clashes that may lead to limited confrontation. There is reason to believe that demonstrative military exercises, diplomatic disputes at various sites, and minor incidents involving fishing and exploration vessels will continue. But a compromise in the near future is unlikely to be possible. The most that can be achieved is the prevention of open conflict. 16 Singapore experts believe that in the long term, the territorial dispute in the South China Sea may become a major security problem for Southeast Asian countries, especially if China continues to build up its military capabilities.17

But Beijing has its own reasons for strengthening the army and navy. Despite a slight increase in confrontational rhetoric between the United States and China, their rivalry is likely to go with varying success. After all, the destabilization of the military and political situation in such a vast and important region for the world economy as the Asia-Pacific region carries great and unpredictable risks for both Washington and Beijing. According to foreign experts, the territorial contradictions in East Asia are not only a dispute between Beijing and specific states in the struggle for borders, natural and biological resources, but, perhaps, no less a clash of geopolitical interests of Beijing, which seeks to designate its claims to leadership in the Asia-Pacific region, and the United States as a power that still plays a key role. role in solving regional problems.

In the long run, the fate of ASEAN will largely depend on the position taken by the United States and China: whether it will be more profitable for them to preserve the unity of ASEAN with its huge domestic market, skilled labor and rich natural resources, or whether they will prefer to split ASEAN into pro-Chinese and pro-American blocks. Foreign experts believe that a pessimistic scenario is less likely.

1; Hsiao Russell. China Exerts Administrative Control Over Disputed South China Sea Islets // The Jamestown Foundation. China Brief. Vol. 7, Issue 23. 13.12.2007 s%5D=4611

2 For more details, see: Lokshin G. M. Clouds move gloomily over the Eastern Sea / / Asia and Africa Today, 2010, N 8; Rusakov E. M. "...Holding a big baton in your hands " / / Asia and Africa Today, 2011, N 3 (approx. ed.)

3 Remarks. Hillary Rodham Clinton. Secretary of State. National Convention Center. Hanoi, Vietnam. July 23, 2010 / / US State Department website - htm

Tan S.C. 4 Changing Global Landscape and Enhanced US Engagement with Asia - Challenges and Emerging Trends // Asia-Pacific Review, 2012, 19:1, p. 114.

5 Ibidem.

Hassan M. J. 6 Disputes in the South China Sea: Approaches for Conflict Management / Southeast Asian perspectives on security, ed. by Da Cunha, D., Singapore, ISEAS, 2000, p. 102 - 103.

7 Ibidem.

Baogang He. 8 A Concert of Powers and Hybrid Regionalism in Asia // Australian Journal of Political Science, 2012, No. 4.

Scott D. 9 Conflict Irresolution in the South China Sea // Asian Survey, 2012, Number 6, p. 1042.

Kuik Cheng-Chwee. 10 Nor Azizan Idris and Nor Abd Rahim. The China Factor in the U.S. "Reengagement" With Southeast Asia: Drivers and Limits of Converged Hedging // Asian Politics & Policy, 2012, Number 3.

11 Ibid., p. 336.

12 For more information, see: Simonia A. A. Changes in Myanmar / / Asia and Africa Today, 2012, No. 7 (ed.).

Chen I.T. -Y., Yang A.H. 13 A harmonized Southeast Asia? Explanatory typologies of ASEAN countries' strategies to the rise of China // The Pacific Review, 2013, DOI:10.

Yi-hung Chiou. 14 Unraveling the Logic of ASEAN's Decision-Making: Theoretical Analysis and Case Examination // Asian Politics & Policy, July/September 2010, N 3.

Tan A.T.H. 15 The US and China in the Malay Archipelago // Asia-Pacific Review, 2010, No. 2, p. 47.

Yahuda Michae. 16 China's New Assertiveness in the South China Sea // Journal of Contemporary China, 2013.

Emmers R. 17 Maritime Disputes in the South China Sea: Strategic and Diplomatic Status Quo // Working Paper No. 87, September 2005. Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, Singapore


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E. S. MARTYNOVA, US-CHINA RIVALRY IN ASIA: WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR ASEAN? // New-York: Libmonster (LIBMONSTER.COM). Updated: 24.06.2024. URL: (date of access: 25.07.2024).

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