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Southeast Asian leadership without hegemony

by Simon Tay

When they met in California earlier this month, Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama discussed a long list of disputes from trade to climate change to cyber-hacking.

Both were anxious to get along and only small steps forward will directly result. The key deliverable for the first U.S.-China Summit, early in Obama’s second term and as Xi starts an expected decade in power, is rapport.

The unresolved question of their relations in the Asia-Pacific hovered in the background. Xi touched on this by saying “the vast Pacific Ocean has enough space” for both countries. Underlying this was Chinese resentment about the U.S. “pivot,” or rebalancing of military and diplomatic assets, to Asia.

Many in Beijing see the move as a thinly disguised attempt to encircle and deny China space in the region. The fundamental issue of accommodating a rising China must await another occasion. Timing indeed may prove critical.

At present, Asian nations like the Philippines and Vietnam have welcomed the U.S. move because China has grown more assertive recently about its claims over the resource-rich South China Sea. Similarly tensions over disputed islands further north have prompted Japan to embrace its alliance with America and move to bolster its own defense capabilities.

It’s easy to forget how recent many of these tensions are. The arguments simmered but remained in abeyance for decades. From the mid 1990s and into the early 2000s, China successfully reached out to the nations of Southeast Asia and collaborated with them on infrastructure, finance and a free trade agreement.

Even Tokyo made efforts to get on with China then. The first time he was in office, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sought to improve ties with Beijing and so did the opposition Democratic Party of Japan when it came to power. Japanese leaders recognized the deep economic interdependence that binds the region’s two largest economies.

For the decade after the Asian financial crisis of 1997, relations between China and most of its neighbors grew stronger and deeper — largely without American involvement. The current tensions among Asians may be the deviation rather than the norm. This should give pause to America’s regional policy, post-pivot. Asia is not looking for a return to the era of unquestioned dominance — where America is the sole power setting the agenda. Asians do not endorse the American rebalancing for the long term at any price.

Witness the regional economy that continues to outperform the rest of the world. The first fear for Asians is a possible Chinese slowdown. What happens in the United States is secondary.

The essential future direction is toward deeper Asian integration rather than any re-emphasis on the American consumer — notwithstanding the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks pushed by Obama.

America’s security role is more clearly appreciated, but this is on the back of current tensions. If a code of conduct is negotiated and if talks over mutually developing undersea resources in the area come to anything, Asian fears could ease.

Most must realistically acknowledge that, unless current trends sharply change, China will be the dominant presence in the region. No one accepts being a vassal state, but neither do most demand full equality. Those countries that wish otherwise — like Japan and India — must ramp up their own armed forces rather than rely solely on the Pentagon.

Asians may yet accept that China will in time lead the region, but not that it rules.

One model for that kind of leadership has evolved in Southeast Asia. In the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the public emphasis is on consensus, yet behind the scenes bigger economies like Indonesia and others like Singapore quietly have influence.

Working in this way the group has emerged — even if not without criticism — as a relatively cohesive and peaceable.

Whether it is the U.S. now, or China prospectively, Asia needs a model of leadership that goes beyond the hegemony of any one power — even as some are more equal than others. As Obama and Xi follow up their summit and seek a better understanding of their roles in the region, that acknowledgement can mean they have one less thing to argue over.

Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and the author of “Asia Alone: The Dangerous Post- Crisis Divide From America.”