November 23, 2012 4:06 am

US and China vie for influence in SE Asia

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When Air Force One touched down in Cambodia this week, Barack Obama became the first US president to visit the country. But during his trip, part of a US attempt to “rebalance” towards Asia, Mr Obama bumped up against a rival power.

From the wall of the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh hung a large green banner with the words “Long live the People’s Republic of China”.

Inside the building, the US president lectured the Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen on human rights in a meeting aides called “tense”.

The power play between Beijing and Washington – which has dominated the region since the second world war – underlines how China’s rise and US attempts to balance it have drawn new dividing lines in Asia.

The US has been willing to look beyond human rights abuse in Myanmar and Vietnam to encourage closer ties with Washington as the countries turn away from Beijing.

At this week’s East Asia Summit – an annual meeting of 18 Asian and Pacific leaders – moves by Beijing and Washington to solidify existing alliances and win new friends continued to drive a wedge into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Cambodia, which has this year’s rotating Asean chairmanship, initially claimed the group had agreed not to discuss the South China Sea territorial disputes that several of its members have with China with “outsiders”, such as the US and Japan. But that triggered a backlash from the Philippines and Vietnam.

“Many observers are asking whether we’re moving towards a new cold war in Asia,” says Yuan Peng, an expert on US-China relations at the China Institute for Contemporary International Relations, a government think-tank. “I am cautiously optimistic that will not happen, but the challenge is to deal with the competing interests between China and the US in Asia.”

A series of maritime stand-offs between China and Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines over the past couple of years has made some southeast Asian nations nervous about China’s intentions and eager to improve relations with the US.

“Chinese assertion has backfired,” says Andrew Carr, an expert on Asia-Pacific security at the Australian National University in Canberra.

Both Myanmar and Vietnam, which have traditionally had strong, if often complicated ties to China, have worked hard to rebuild their much more fraught relationships with the US.

Many analysts argue that fear about their growing economic and political reliance on Beijing was an important factor in pushing Myanmar’s military leaders to embark on the reforms that prompted Mr Obama to visit the country on Monday.

China is trying to counter with the allure of its own fast-growing economy. A major aid donor, Beijing has weighed on Cambodia to do its bidding.

“The rise of a power will reduce the relative influence of smaller and weaker states, so they will oppose it. That is China’s foreign policy dilemma,” says Zhang Yuyan, head of the Institute of World Economics and Politics at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “Therefore China must open its market to give them economic benefits.”

But many western analysts say Beijing still seems blind to the way its more aggressive tactics continue to push other countries in the region towards the US.

“They don’t see the connection between upping the tempo on the maritime operations and the fact that so many countries in the region are moving towards the very counter-containment strategies Beijing doesn’t want,” says Michael Green, former Asia director at the National Security Council during the administration of George W. Bush.

China’s new leadership could become even more assertive. Joseph Fewsmith, an expert on Chinese politics at Boston University, expects Xi Jinping, the new Communist party chief, to assert China’s interests in very clear terms. “That is likely to cause new friction in the neighbourhood,” he says.

The Obama administration is likely to try to present a more consistent policy towards China in the second term, but is also set to increase naval operations in the region with allies, including with Japan, to demonstrate firmness.

“There is an increasing view that the goal for the next four years is to avoid conflict, not necessarily to improve relations,” says Christopher Johnson, a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

However, some in Washington believe that the Obama administration’s moves to strengthen ties with Asean members and become more involved in the South China Sea disputes are partly responsible for China’s more assertive behaviour. “We have to be very careful that we do not pour more oil on this fire,” says one former senior Pentagon official. “We need to make it clear to our allies that we are not going to go to war over a few lumps of rock.”

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