ASEAN’s priority: China
This is realpolitik ASEAN has to face. Chinese Premier Li Leqiang’s presence at the summits of ASEAN leaders and their meetings with their trading partners in Singapore this week will have a decisive and direct impact on the outcomes of their annual gatherings. The premier of the world’s second-largest economy carries a strong mandate from President Xi Jinping to act as his chief negotiator at the multilateral meetings.
As The Jakarta Post writes in an article "ASEAN’s priority: China", on the contrary, the absence of United States President Donald Trump and the presence of Vice President Mike Pence will have little impact on the meetings of the 10-member regional grouping.
The summits in Singapore are shrouded by the fear of a possible global trade war, which Trump has threatened to initiate. His “America First” doctrine and his tendency for unilateral decision making aims at keeping the US as the world’s largest economy, but clearly its economic might has been lessening.
Japan, the world’s largest economy after the US and China, is facing similar dilemmas in this region. Japan is losing its economic power to its neighbor China. The all-out efforts by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to counter China by clinging closer to the US seem unable to win Trump’s attention, because the president is unhappy about the US trade deficit with Japan.
The Singapore outing is crucial for Indonesia. The region’s largest economy is very enthusiastic and China is very eager to finalize the ASEAN-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership this year. When realized, the new trade bloc will comprise 16 members, the 10 ASEAN members, China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand. The trade agreement will account for 50 percent of the world’s population and 30 percent of the world’s gross domestic product.
However, it does not mean ASEAN does not have serious problems with China. The Asian giant claims nearly the whole of the South China Sea, angering Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines that also have sovereignty claims there. China and ASEAN are still negotiating a code of conduct to avoid armed conflict, which otherwise would threaten the peace and stability of not only the region but also the world.
For ASEAN and China, cooperation is the wisest choice despite the unresolved problems.
Once the West and Japan dominated Southeast Asian economies, but it has changed. The region has steadily developed and grown stronger. Outside powers have to adjust themselves to ASEAN’s new leverage.
Does the old proverb lepas mulut buaya, masuk mulut harimau (out of the crocodile’s mouth, into the tiger’s mouth) fit the relationship between ASEAN and China, which has admittedly replaced the power and influence of the US? The answer is definitely no.
For ASEAN, China is no longer life-threatening despite its economic power. ASEAN has leverage to counter its giant neighbor. An Indonesian scholar once joked that ASEAN has equipped itself with the skill of a pawang (animal tamer) in negotiating with outside powers.
Like it or not, for the time being and unforeseeable future, China is a priority for ASEAN. And ASEAN is not alone.