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Don’t let the Superpowers Run the Show: How Regional Institutions can Stabilize Southeast Asia

Claudia K. Huber and Priya Shankar - 1st March 2013
How Regional Institutions can Stabilize Southeast Asia

In this interview for Foresight, Amitav Acharya, Professor of International Relations, American University, Washington DC, discusses the prospects of peace and stability in Southeast Asia, and the crucial role of international and regional institutions.

Last year, the Obama administration announced a ‘pivot’ to the Asia-Pacific, leading to much debate and consternation. This policy has now been reframed as a ‘rebalance’. East Asia remains a complex region with rising powers, strong nationalist sentiments and historical rivalries, which is at the same time of high strategic importance to the US.

Recent tensions in both the South and East China Seas highlight the delicate balance and difficulties facing the region. At the same time, as a major centre of global economic growth, it is also an area of enormous potential. At this significant juncture, this interview discusses the prospects of peace and stability in the region with Amitav Acharya, a leading expert on Asian regional cooperation. It explores the role of China and the United States in the region as well as the implications of leadership transitions in both countries. Acharya emphasises the importance of regional institutions in ensuring stability.

About the Interviewee: Amitav Acharya is Professor of International Relations and Chair of the ASEAN Studies Centre at the American University in Washington DC. In 2012-2013, he is also Nelson Mandela Visiting Professor of International Relations at Rhodes University in South Africa.

About the Interviewers: Claudia K. Huber and Priya Shankar are both Senior Researchers and Project Developers at the Alfred Herrhausen Society, where they work on the Foresight project on rising powers.

Q.1 What are the main challenges and opportunities facing the Asia Pacific region?

Politically, the main issue is how to deal with the rise of China and India and the role of the United States in the region. What is happening in Asia is primarily a shift in the power distribution. But there are also other challenges such as territorial conflicts.

Economically, the trade and finance are the major challenges. In terms of trade, there are competing frameworks for trade liberalization. One that is American-proposed: the trans-pacific partnership, which does not include China. The second framework for trade relations in-between East Asian countries does not include the United States. So which of these two will actually be pursued or should be pursued? This choice is going to be very difficult to manage for the regional countries.

What do you think are the prospects of peace or conflict in the Asia-Pacific?

In the short term, the chances of stability are relatively strong. At the moment, there is no incentive for any major power to engage in conflict. China is still not a super power. It is a growing power. And the United States still feels confident that it can manage the security with its current military presence. But in the longer term, there is more likelihood of conflict, especially if nationalism in China grows and the conflict between China and the Southeast Asian countries over the South China Sea does not get resolved. The South China Sea Spratly Islands conflict could get more serious, especially if Japan becomes more nationalistic in response to the rise of China. But there is time for the region to develop mechanisms to address those conflicts through institutions like ASEAN. And also through further bilateral interactions with the leaders in China. At some point, the desire will grow to not let conflicts grow out of hand and develop some sort of understanding like the United States and the Soviet Union did during the Cold War. I think that could potentially happen as time passes.

Q.3 Do you think the changes of government in China and the US will affect the situation in the South and East China Seas?

A.3 I don’t think the change in government itself will be a factor. The conflicts in the South and East China Seas all have to do with nationalism and the perceptions of sovereignty. This has little to do with who is in charge. But I think what might make a difference is if China realizes that ASEAN is a very strong forum that will not accept a very extravagant or absolute position of China in the South China Sea conflict. In the East China Sea I think it is a little different. This conflict is not multilateral and that will depend really on the political relationship between China and Japan. It cannot be predicted but one would assume that both sides will be careful in not pushing it too far. I worry more about this conflict because China may have a desire to compromise with ASEAN but less so with Japan.

Q.4 How do you think the rebalance of the US towards the Asia Pacific will evolve under the new term of the Obama administration?

A.4 Well the policy has already been decided. Now is the period for implementation. The question is whether the United States will have the economic and material resources to carry it out. Rebalancing by itself is not a big deal militarily speaking. It does not really require that much of an adjustment in US force deployments. But even maintaining the current level of deployment is going to be challenging especially if the budget crisis continues and growth does not return in the United States. But even if the US is committed to rebalancing, there is a perception in the region that the United States cannot sustain it. And whether rightly or wrongly that perception is there. This is going to make it very difficult for the US to have a credible rebalancing strategy. Any policy requires credibility and that is a problem for the US.

And how do you think the multiple regional organizations and forums in the area relate to each other? What role do they play in the region?

There is a lot of overlap among different regional institutions and that needs to be addressed. For example, ARF (ASEAN Regional Forum) and EAS (East Asia Summit) both deal with security issues while APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) and TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) are both pursuing trade liberalization. While this overlap won’t disappear immediately, it is quite clear that EAS is becoming a more politically strategic institution, probably the most important one in the region. But it is not an implementing body. It does not have a secretariat. So it is basically a forum for the discussion and setting policy directions. ARF, on the other hand, is more like an implementing body. And APEC as well as ASEAN +3 are going to deal with financial and economic issues. So I think there is a division of labor emerging. It depends on where the United States, China, Japan and to a lesser extent India put their resources into and which particular institution they use for solving particular problems.

Q.6 What do you think is the attitude of both China and the US towards ASEAN and other regional organizations?

A.6 The United States is clearly supporting ASEAN’s role in the regional architecture. Particularly the Obama administration recognizes the principal of ASEAN centrality in the regional security architecture and supports ASEAN in every possible way. The Chinese outwardly support the principle of ASEAN centrality too. But internally, I think a lot of Chinese policy makers see ASEAN moving closer to the US and supporting the US re-engagement in Southeast Asia and Asia-Pacific. They see ASEAN’S position in the South China Sea not as a neutral broker and not as being helpful to China’s interest. But they cannot say that openly and abandon the principal of ASEAN centrality. So I think one part of China’s strategy would be to win individual ASEAN countries away from the collective position. And the Chinese try to influence Cambodia very overtly and in fact quite blatantly through all kinds of incentives and support. They are probably trying to do the same thing in other countries. They might put diplomatic or economic pressure on ASEAN. They might even threaten sanctions. The Chinese desire to divide ASEAN or win some countries away from a collective position is going to be challenging for ASEAN and the most serious test of ASEAN unity for the next decade.

How does the presence of China and the United States affect regional cooperation in the Asia Pacific and what role do they play in the region?

A.7 I think that the rise of China poses a challenge to regional security and the United States provides some kind of countervailing influence. But this is not a classic balance of power game between the two powers, because both China and US are also engaged through multilateral institutions, such as ASEAN. ASEAN exerts a restraining influence on both China and the US, discouraging China from being aggressive and expansionist, and the US from going for an outright containment of China, like the US did to the Soviet Union in the Cold War. While I am neither from China or the United States, a lot of Americans would agree with that view. On the other hand, the Chinese do not see themselves to be the problem. They actually see American re-engagement, re-balancing as the problem. But the majority of the countries in the region see China’s assertiveness as causing problems. Not the rise of China per se but when China becomes assertive about its territorial claims, when China builds up its military without any kind of transparency. This creates suspicion and some sort of anxiety and even fear in the minds of regional countries. The United States has traditionally been the balancer for the region. It is not just playing the military balancing game through its alliances but also it is a participant in the multilateral process in building cooperative security and therefore contributing to the management of tensions and conflict. I think both are indispensable. If the Chinese have any intention of keeping the United States out of the region I think they are wrong. This claim is not going to get any support from most of the regional countries. And the United States has no intention of pulling out of the region or withdrawing from its regional engagement. And I think this is a good thing for the region. What is potentially dangerous is if the United States and China see their involvement as a kind of zero-sum competition. And other actors like ASEAN or Japan or India simply let the US and China run the show, let their tensions play out. It is very important therefore to have an organization like ASEAN involved because it can moderate this rivalry between the US and China. Ultimately I think the security of the region is not just a simple bilateral equation between the two major powers but depends on the participation and involvement of the regional actors. Therefore, role of ASEAN and other regional organizations is critical.