HANOI – Great power rivalries, including US-China chest-thumping on a wide range of political, economic and security issues, look set to dominate this weekend’s Asian summits set inside the bleak, socialist-cliché trappings of Hanoi’s imposing National Convention Center.
The immediate focus of the 17th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit, with regional leaders in attendance, will be Myanmar’s first elections in two decades scheduled for November 7. As ever, the military-ruled country has added an edginess to the typically anodyne proceedings, where attention to the ephemera sometimes borders on the absurd.
Two days after Robert Kelley, a former International Atomic Energy Agency official, called on ASEAN to take the lead in addressing an alleged nuclear weapons program in Myanmar, one of the three official summit press statements released by ASEAN at time of writing was devoted to the issuing a commemorative stamp by host country Vietnam.
If Myanmar’s security threat is not being taken seriously, its well-documented human rights abuses are. A flurry of statements from civil society and rights groups across the region have exhorted ASEAN leaders to do various things about the apparent fait accompli of Myanmar’s polls, where military-backed candidates are expected to dominate the vote.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban ki Moon told reporters in Bangkok on Monday that “it is not too late” for the elections in Myanmar to be more inclusive. Though with 25% of parliamentary seats pre-booked for the Tatmadaw, or Myanmar’s army, the prospects for genuine democratic change are limited. Opposition parties will contest around only around 30% of all remaining seats for the regional and national assemblies.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo gave a more gruff assessment, describing the upcoming vote as “a farce” There is speculation that his country’s president, Benigno Aquino, might break with the passive ASEAN norm and deliver a robust condemnation of the polls. Myanmar was not raised at the ASEAN leaders’ retreat, though Aquino says he called for the release of detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been barred from participating in the polls, and other political prisoners at the ASEAN leaders’ dinner on Thursday.
US Senator Jim Webb has already taken a vocal stance, urging the Barack Obama administration not to allow Myanmar to become “a province of China,” as he put it to media in Washington on Wednesday morning.
However, the attention that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton can or will give to Southeast Asia’s most nettlesome member is likely to be limited with other geostrategic issues on the boil.
Increasingly, it appears that the US views Myanmar as a chess piece in the bigger geopolitical game vis-à-vis China as much as a human rights cause. In a speech in Hawaii on Thursday in transit to Hanoi, Clinton offered the US’s firmest backing yet for a United Nations-led probe into official rights abuses in Myanmar that depending on the results could lead to international warrants for the country’s military leaders.
The US and China are at odds over a number of issues, including the value of China’s currency, access to the South China Sea, and security on the Korean peninsula, among others. The South China Sea issue has particular regional resonance. Countries such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia – all of whom have competing claims with China in the South China Sea – want any dispute resolution to be done through multilateral means, a position the US strongly backs.
China, on the other hand, prefers to deal with individual countries on a bilateral basis and without US mediating involvement. Beijing’s recently harder line has raised fears in Southeast Asia that the emphasis of China’s diplomacy is shifting from economics to security. Speaking at the opening ceremony of the ASEAN Summit on Thursday, Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung told his counterparts that the South China Sea would feature on the ASEAN meeting agenda. Vietnam and the Philippines were seeking to establish a common ASEAN position on the South China Sea in advance of the China-ASEAN summit, according to an Aquino spokesperson.
China Premier Wen Jiabao arrived in Hanoi on Thursday, giving him a head start on Clinton who is scheduled to arrive just before Saturday’s East Asia Summit. Wen may use the time to push ASEAN member states into dropping any mention of the South China Sea issue from the EAS discussions. Clinton stoked Chinese ire on her previous visit to Hanoi this year when she suggested that the South China Sea is an “international waterway” and that its openness is of US concern. Her comments came three months after Chinese officials described the sea as a core national interest on a par with Tibet and Taiwan.
With mid-term elections coming up in Washington and Democrats and Republicans there vying to out-do each other in the China-bashing stakes, Clinton cannot afford to cede any ground to Beijing on this or any of the other hot-button issues now dividing the world’s two largest economies.
The summit will also likely touch upon the brewing US-China “currency war” that threatens regional export competitiveness and new economic instability.
While China stands accused of keeping the value of its currency artificially-low, Southeast Asian economies have seen their currencies rise rapidly against the US dollar, making their exports less competitive and inviting a massive inflow of foreign capital. The Obama administration’s first two years have seen weak economic growth and high unemployment, which Washington partly-= blames on China’s fixed exchange rate policy. For its part, China feels that accumulation of US debt has helped to keep the American economy afloat, effectively financing mammoth deficit spending and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Whether or not the two hour East Asia Summit on Saturday will allow for discussion of these wide range of issues remains to be seen. The upcoming G-20 meeting in South Korea and Asia-Pacific Economic Community (APEC) gathering in Japan remain the more likely fora for any breakthrough. That said, the fact that these meetings come after the November 2 mid-term US elections may see Clinton push the envelope on the currency issue in Hanoi, in a last-ditch effort to win votes before Americans go to the polls.
China’s growing assertiveness in East and Southeast Asia has prompted critical analysis that it has overplayed its hand, with Japan describing as “hysterical” the Chinese reaction to the Senkaku/Diaoyu incident when Japanese naval officers arrested a Chinese captain whose ship was in the waters around the disputed islands. Tokyo is hoping to seal this week an access deal to so-called “rare-earth” minerals in Vietnam, materials vital to the production of high-end electronic, telecommunications and consumer goods.
China currently controls more than 90% of the export market in rare earths, leaving many Japanese industries highly-vulnerable to Beijing’s whim at a time bilateral relations have soured. In another indication of cooling ties, a trilateral economic meeting between China, Japan and South Korea here was abruptly cancelled, in turn jeopardizing a proposed bilateral meeting originally scheduled for Friday between Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and his Japanese counterpart Naoto Kan.Show