US-ASEAN Summit: Is the US Catching up with China?

by: Lucio Blanco Pitlo III / March 9, 2016,/ chinausfocus.com

According to the 2015 Bloomberg survey, four of the top ten fastest growing emerging economies are members of ASEAN – Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. ASEAN’s geographical proximity and deepening linkages with other key regional economies such as China, Japan and Korea also contributes to making the wider East Asian region a critical engine of global economic growth and development in the years to come.

On the security front, ASEAN is also facing serious challenges such as the jurisdictional disputes over South China Sea. The significance of ASEAN did not escape the calculus of major powers that have long courted and engaged Southeast Asian states and ASEAN as a regional organization. In the contest for influence over this vital region, China appears to have gained the lead. From this perspective, the Special U.S.-ASEAN Summit at Sunnylands, California can be seen as an attempt to counter the growing influence of China over ASEAN, as well as to restore the U.S. leadership/primacy in the region.

The U.S. has a long history of engagement with ASEAN dating back to four decades ago. It became a Dialogue Partner of ASEAN in 1977, earlier than China, which attained full dialogue partner status only in 1996. The US was also the first Dialogue Partner to establish a diplomatic mission and appoint a resident ambassador for ASEAN in 2010; China did the same only in 2012. However, deep involvement in other distant theaters (e.g. Middle East and North Africa), increased security investments in response to terrorism and other security challenges, and recent economic woes scaled down the resources that the US has for the region and consequently made it harder to respond to the fast-changing realities on the ground especially in light of China’s rise.

In contrast to the U.S., China since initiating market-oriented reforms in the late 1970s valued the importance of its immediate neighborhood and began to expand its ties with ASEAN. It became a Strategic Partner of ASEAN in 2003, earlier than the US that obtained such status only in 2015. China was also the first Dialogue Partner to enter the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in 2003; the U.S. only followed suit in 2009. China was the first Nuclear Weapon State to express its intention to enter to the South East Asia Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Protocol. It also began an Annual Leaders Summit with ASEAN in 1997 (though initially informal) while the U.S. only did so in 2009. But while these political efforts were laudable, it was actually on the economic front that China’s impact on ASEAN became most felt and enduring. The ASEAN-China economic relations eventually paved the way for the establishment of a free trade agreement (FTA) in 2010, the first multilateral FTA for China, which took effect last year. Curiously, U.S.-ASEAN Trade and Investment Framework Agreement was signed as early as 2006 but this never graduated to an FTA – U.S. signed an FTA with Singapore the following year (2007). In 2013, a U.S.-ASEAN Expanded Economic Engagement (E3) Initiative was established but whether this will help build momentum towards a future bilateral FTA remains to be seen. Read more…

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