BBC: America wants to play in the Chinese court. How Biden is trying to derail Xi’s Southeast Asia plans

Nowhere has Xi Jinping’s aggressive foreign policy had a greater impact than in Southeast Asia, China’s strategic backyard, writes the BBC. But with Beijing in power, Washington’s unease has grown and now, after years of contradictory actions, the United States is again trying to get involved in the region.

When he attends the annual ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) summit this week, US President Joe Biden will become the first US leader to attend the event since 2017.

But now the United States operates in a far more treacherous diplomatic environment than in the past. ASEAN, once seen as a centerpiece of Asia-Pacific diplomacy, has struggled to remain an effective forum in an increasingly polarized world.

The organization presents itself as a place of peace and neutrality where its 10 members seek to find a consensus, avoid criticizing each other and are free to discuss with other countries. Its small and weak secretariat and the absence of any process for implementing the decisions taken by the members of the organization reflect the thinking of ASEAN.

The looser style of organization worked well when there was US-led global cooperation that promoted trade and economic growth. But since China made its presence felt in the international market and extended its influence beginning in the first decade of the 3rd millennium, US interest in the region has waned, with the US government increasingly focusing on the Middle East. .

The Chinese Offensive to “Conquer” Southeast Asia: From Deng’s Diplomacy to Xi’s Aggression

China has embarked on a diplomatic offensive to draw players from the Southeast Asian region into its sphere of influence, following former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s mantra: “hide your power, wait the good moment”. Under Xi, who has been in power for 10 years now, China’s strength no longer remained hidden.

Over the past decade, its occupation and military development of the South China Sea islands has brought Beijing into direct conflict with other contenders for administration of these strategically important territories, including Vietnam and the Philippines.

Attempts by the ASEAN group to get China to adhere to a “code of conduct” in disputed areas have yielded no results. Beijing simply delayed negotiations for 20 years and refused to accept the 2016 International Court of Justice ruling that invalidated its territorial claims in the region.

ASEAN countries are in a complicated position. First, China is so important economically and so powerful militarily that few dare to confront it in public.

Even in Vietnam, a country that fought a war with China just 43 years ago and where anti-China sentiment is very strong, the ruling Communist Party is very cautious when dealing with its giant neighbor.

Vietnam shares a long border with China, and Beijing is Hanoi’s biggest trading partner and a vital link in the supply chain that fuels its exports.

China destroyed ASEAN unity in an effort to turn them into vassal states

Second, China all but destroyed the unity of ASEAN when it made some of its smaller members so dependent on Beijing that they almost became vassal states.

This was clear in 2012, when Cambodia took over the chairmanship of the ASEAN organization and blocked a final statement criticizing Beijing’s position in the South China Sea.

The concerns of its neighbors in the region over China’s actions may seem like a boon for the United States, but the truth is that Southeast Asian countries feel let down by Washington.

They see the United States as a partner they cannot trust, too concerned with human rights and democracy. The Americans forced the nations of the region to accept very unpopular and harsh economic measures after the Asian financial crisis of 1997.

Furthermore, the United States almost completely abandoned the region during George Bush’s War on Terror and shifted its priorities again after Barack Obama’s vaunted “pivot” to Asia, aligning itself more with the protectionist approach of Donald Trump, who criticized what he called Asia’s unfair trade practices.

US-led QUAD alliance further weakens ASEAN states

The United States is now focusing on its alliance with Japan, India and Australia (also known as the Quad), which has further weakened ASEAN states, which feel caught between two powerful rivals. Washington’s desire to challenge China in Asia worries countries in the southeast of the continent, as they would have much to lose from a confrontation between the two superpowers.

Under President Joko Widodo, even Indonesia, ASEAN’s largest state and the country with the most China-skeptical foreign policy, has sought to attract Chinese investment, loans and technology.

The good news for the United States is that none of the ASEAN countries will become as close a military ally to China as Japan and Australia are to the United States, but all South Asian states Southeast now accept that Beijing will be the dominant power in the region and that it will not be willing to compromise on its own interests.

Biden’s dilemma: Is it too late for the US to reconfigure alliances in China’s backyard?

Publisher: Raul Nețoiu

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