China is rapidly becoming the predominant
power in Southeast Asia. Beijing's diplomats have effectively
translated China's burgeoning economic clout into political
influence, leaving in question the U.S. role and commitment to the
region, even with traditional allies and friends.
If the United States hopes to avoid the
emergence of a Beijing-dominated Southeast Asia, Washington must
quickly and firmly re-engage the region on the diplomatic,
economic, and defense fronts. To shore up America's eroding
influence in Southeast Asia, Washington must give priority to new
free trade agreements (FTAs) in the region, fuller participation
and leadership in other pacts such as the Asia Pacific Economic
Cooperation (APEC) forum and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), and
stronger bilateral anti-terrorism and disaster relief
Sino-Southeast Asia Trade Bloc?
Beijing has already made
significant progress on the trade front. At a Beijing-inspired
summit meeting in Vientiane, Laos, in November 2004, China, Japan,
South Korea, and the 10 member states of the Association of
Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) reached a consensus on an "ASEAN+3"
trade framework. The outcome of the Vientiane summit was an
entirely new East Asia Summit (EAS) framework that pointedly
excluded the United States.
The new architecture came
in the form of China's proposed Free Trade Area with ASEAN
countries, which invites each ASEAN nation separately to
negotiate a bilateral FTA with China rather than leaving it to
ASEAN as a whole to negotiate multilaterally with China. This individual negotiation
strategy enabled Beijing to "divide and conquer" the ASEAN states,
with the pro-China countries, such as Thailand and Burma,
moving ahead with separate deals and others like Malaysia and
Vietnam going along because they feared Chinese
In essence, the
China-ASEAN Free Trade Area grants a period of duty-free entry for
each ASEAN country's goods into the Chinese market-generally a
three-year period known as "early harvest"- after which time
Chinese goods will have reciprocal free entry. As one ASEAN
diplomat pointed out in 2003, this means that a particular ASEAN
partner will be granted three years to compete in China's market in
raw materials, agricultural products, and minerals, which China
does not produce. However, after the early harvest period, China's
manufactured goods will have full tariff-free access to the
markets of its Southeast Asian partner.
The likely result of this
arrangement would be to strengthen China's economic hand in
Southeast Asia. The trading relationship would tie the region
closer together, advancing China's political objectives.
Economically, the deal is
a clear winner for China. It secures access to needed raw materials
while removing barriers to China's exports. The economic center of
gravity in Asia would move further away from Japan and the United
States and closer to China. Singaporean Prime Minister Goh Chok
Tong, looking for a silver lining to Chinese economic
predominance in the region, suggested that ASEAN use the
challenge as a "time for action" to adapt and implement regional
After the close of the
East Asia Summit preparatory meeting, the Chinese state media
ominously announced that, "in the near future, there will also be
talks on the development of political cooperation and also
some military cooperation [with ASEAN countries]." How the
EAS develops after 2005 will define whether it becomes an East Asia
Community like the European Union or remains a collaborative
community, which involves dialogue and consultation but respects
the independence of individual member countries and encourages
In comparison, American
efforts are bilateral and tepid. The United States has an FTA with
only one ASEAN country-Singapore, which was already one of the
world's freest economies. The U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) has
begun negotiations looking toward an FTA with Thailand, but no
other FTAs are in process with countries in Southeast
Besides FTAs, policymakers
have other economically significant agreements available,
including trade and investment framework agreements (TIFA) and
open skies agreements (OSA). A TIFA is a consultative mechanism for
the United States to discuss trade issues, and an OSA creates free
markets for aviation services. Regrettably, like FTAs, TIFAs and
OSAs are underutilized in Southeast Asia.
A regional TIFA with ASEAN
would be advantageous in the context of the legal restrictions
on trade with Burma. A TIFA is just a framework for discussion, and
Burma gets no direct benefit. In the end, as long as Congress
retains sanctions on Burma, Rangoon would be unable to take
advantage of the TIFA's trade-harmonizing effect. Although
there are bilateral TIFAs with Thailand, Brunei, Malaysia,
Indonesia, and the Philippines, there has been no effort to
conclude a regional TIFA with ASEAN.
The same problem exists
with OSAs in the region. There are bilateral OSAs with Singapore,
Brunei, Malaysia, and Thailand, but the United States has not
attempted to negotiate a regional OSA with ASEAN. The United States
needs to take advantage of all of its available tools, not only to
increase trade and wealth, but also to increase American influence
ASEAN countries already
have a number of security fora, but China is proposing a
series of initiatives that appear to be designed to increase
Beijing's influence over security relationships in Southeast Asia.
Existing regional fora include the ASEAN Regional Forum, a foreign
ministers conference that discusses regional security issues, and
the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual security forum for defense
ministers organized by London's International Institute for
Strategic Studies beginning in 2002. China is invited to attend
both of these conferences but stopped attending the Shangri-La
Dialogue in 2004, apparently believing that Asians, not
Westerners, should organize and lead regional security
In November 2003, China
circulated a concept paper at the ARF that proposed an ARF Security
Policy Conference, which involves the member states'
vice-minister-level defense and security officials. The first
meeting of the new conference was held in Beijing in November 2004.
A second was held in Vientiane, Laos, in May 2005. Although the
conference nominally invites all current ARF members, many
regional observers interpret the new proposal as an attempt by
Beijing to gain control over the forum. Similar to its
proposals for ASEAN+3, the China-ASEAN Free Trade Area, and the
East Asia Summit, the ARF Security Policy Conference seems to
be part of a broader Chinese strategy to establish political
preeminence in the region.
China is also expanding
its military relationships in Southeast Asia. It has developed a
number of military-to-military initiatives, including joint
military exercises with Australia, the Philippines, and
Thailand; is training ASEAN officers at People's Liberation
Army (PLA) military courses; and is providing Chinese language
training. Singapore hosted a 14-nation sea exercise that included
most of the ASEAN countries and China.
In contrast to China's
focused expansion of diplomatic and security relations with
Southeast Asia, the U.S. Department of State is actively
downgrading the security relationship with ASEAN
countries. Despite the fact that no Secretary of State has
missed an ARF meeting since 1982, Secretary Condoleezza Rice
skipped the July 25-29, 2005, meeting in Laos (her first
opportunity to attend an ARF meeting) and sent her deputy
Secretary Rice's absence
was widely criticized in the region. ASEAN leaders noted that
China's foreign minister attended most of the ARF meeting and
did not press them on a host of difficult issues, such as the war
on terrorism, human rights, economic openness, and Burma's
accession to the chairmanship of ASEAN. Compounding Secretary
Rice's absence in July, no U.S. representative appeared at the
ASEAN economic ministers' meeting in September. American
absence from repeated ASEAN meetings has reinforced the feeling in
the region that Washington places a low priority on relations with
Pressures ASEAN Countries
To get them into the habit
of siding with China, Beijing is selectively applying pressure on
ASEAN countries, even on minor issues. For example, in January
2001, Singapore's Changi Naval Base berthed the aircraft
carrier USS Kitty Hawk. It was the first time a U.S. carrier
had been given pierside access to port facilities in Southeast Asia
since the United States closed its naval base at Subic Bay in the
Philippines in 1992. The move was seen as an effort
by Singapore to align itself with the United States in the face of
a growing Chinese military posture in the region. Yet in 2004, China began to
pressure Singapore over its long-standing military cooperation with
Taiwan and, indirectly, for its increasingly intimate security
relationship with the United States.
In July 2004, Singapore
Prime Minister-designate Lee Hsien-loong visited Taiwan as a
private citizen. Breaking with all earlier practice, China formally
protested the visit and threatened punitive economic measures if
the new prime minister did not apologize immediately for his
"transgression" and promise not to do it again. While he resisted
initially, Lee quickly relented when China cancelled a major
Singapore trade show in Shanghai. Within a month, the prime
minister was forced to state publicly that "if a war breaks out
across the Straits, we will be forced to choose between the two
sides…. But if the conflict is provoked by Taiwan, then
Singapore cannot support Taiwan."
The following day, quite
pleased with Singapore's new obedience, the Chinese Foreign
Ministry spokesman reported with satisfaction that, "we have taken
note of the Singaporean leader's speech, reaffirming support for
the 'one-China policy' and resolutely opposing 'Taiwan
As with its security
relationship with the United States, Singapore has a quiet but
sophisticated military relationship with Taiwan, including
thousands of Singaporean military troops that train on the
island. Because of Singapore's tiny size, the relatively large
Taiwan bases are critical for training its armed forces. The
Taiwan-Singapore military relationship includes a host of
reciprocal agreements. In March 2005, however, Singapore abruptly
cancelled a port call by two Taiwan naval vessels, apparently
at China's insistence. Although Singapore restarted naval
visits with Taiwan a month later, the fact that China was able to
influence Singapore on an issue vital to Singapore's security
is a clear warning to American policymakers.
Singapore's Changi Naval
Base is the only port in Southeast Asia capable of supporting U.S.
aircraft carriers. It is essential that U.S. forces maintain a
strong cooperative relationship with their Singaporean
counterparts. At some point in the future, the United States should
expect Beijing to exert pressure on Singapore to restrain its
security relationship with Washington, jeopardizing U.S. air
and naval operations in the region. This may be particularly true
if the American military presence is interfering with Chinese
military operations against Taiwan or in the South China
China is also gaining
influence in the Philippines. Following the withdrawal of U.S.
forces from the Philippines in 1992, the U.S.-Philippine
alliance atrophied for 10 years. After September 11, 2001,
however, terrorist cells active in the Philippines received
urgent attention from the Pentagon, alerting U.S. policymakers to
the necessity of counterterrorism cooperation with the
Since then, however,
relations between Manila and Washington have improved markedly.
President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was one of the first world
leaders to declare solidarity with the U.S, immediately after 9/11.
Manila was soon receiving more than $100 million per year in
economic and security aid to fight the war on terrorism.
Philippine and American armed forces cooperated in a series of
operations against the terrorist group Abu Sayyaf, driving it from
its home base on Basilan Island. In return, when Operation Iraqi
Freedom was launched in 2003, the Philippines participated by
dispatching a 60-man medical unit to Baghdad.
Although President Arroyo
looked great from Washington, bad economic policies, tax increases,
and allegations of corruption and vote rigging at home seriously
damaged her reputation and ability to govern. When a Filipino
civilian was kidnapped in Iraq in 2004, President Arroyo tried to
win back her flagging popularity by abandoning the long-standing
Philippine policy of not negotiating with terrorists. She withdrew
the contingent in Iraq to win the release of the Filipino truck
driver. Many American commentators denounced Arroyo's capitulation
to terrorists, and Congress decreased American foreign aid from the
$130 million authorized for 2005 to $96 million in
In a tactic that Beijing
is perfecting around the world, China stepped in to aid the
beleaguered Arroyo. "Within six weeks of pulling out of the Iraq
coalition," one senior Administration foreign policy official
lamented, "our Filipino 'allies' sent President Gloria Arroyo
to Beijing, completed reciprocal visits for their and China's
defense ministers, and signed a confidential protocol with China on
exploitation of South China Sea resources."
offered the Philippines $3 million in military assistance to
establish a Chinese language-training program for the
Philippine military, donated engineering equipment, invited the
Philippines to participate in naval exercises, and opened five
seats for Filipinos in Chinese military courses.
At first glance, Chinese
military aid is minuscule when compared to American largesse, but
Beijing has achieved its goals. Arroyo committed the
Philippines to supporting China's view on the one-China policy
and agreed to allow China to explore for oil inside the
Philippines' exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The
South China Sea oil agreement is a remarkable reversal of former
Filipino opposition to Chinese activities in the South China
Sea. In 1995, when China seized Mischief Reef, an underwater
reef well within the Philippine EEZ, and established a navy base,
the Philippines boisterously led ASEAN in forming a unified
position against Chinese aggression.
In summary, China has
demonstrated a remarkably deft ability to use its policy
tools, literally maneuvering the United States out of its seat at a
growing number of international fora. Furthermore, China has
become an important provider of security assistance, and the
presence of its military far from home is becoming commonplace. If
Beijing has its way and Washington continues to neglect Southeast
Asia, American military and security guarantees will soon be
redundant to the Chinese presence.
on Southeast Asia
The U.S. must redouble its
political, economic, and security efforts in Southeast Asia to
thwart the Chinese juggernaut. In fact, Singapore Prime
Minister Goh Chok Tong has publicly chided the U.S. for its
disengagement from Southeast Asia. In June 2005, he said that in
the past decade, China has successfully launched 27 separate
ASEAN-China mechanisms at different levels, while 28 years after
the U.S.-ASEAN dialogue was formalized in 1977, "there are
currently only seven U.S.-ASEAN bodies and they meet only
ASEAN is the most
important multilateral organization in Asia. An economically
strong ASEAN, sure of American support for its member
countries' independence, can stand up to China and preserve
their economic, security, and political independence. American
foreign policy should make strengthening engagement with ASEAN a
priority. In order to accomplish this goal, the President
Send the Secretary of State to
the ARF and send an appropriate American representative to all
invitational ASEAN meetings. Downgrading the ASEAN Regional Forum to
the level of the deputy secretary sends the message to
Southeast Asia that the U.S. does not see the region as a priority.
This is also the same message that China is conveying.
Formalize the Shangri-La
current forum is informal and managed by a non-governmental
organization (NGO). The Secretary of Defense should meet
regularly and formally with his counterparts in ASEAN to
harmonize disaster relief response, search and rescue, and
anti-terrorism operations. These talks also will help to coordinate
the growing number of multilateral military exercises and security
for hotspots such as the Malacca Strait.
Increase the number of
U.S.-ASEAN diplomatic and trade mechanisms. For example, the State Department and
the USTR should negotiate a TIFA and an OSA with ASEAN.
Open talks on a
U.S.-ASEAN-Australia free trade area. The United States has signed FTAs with
Singapore and Australia and is negotiating an FTA with Thailand.
The Philippines and Indonesia also have expressed interest in FTAs.
So far, the USTR has been negotiating individual trade agreements
with ASEAN partners, but a broad regional agreement would better
reduce regional trade barriers, increase U.S.-ASEAN trade, and
advance American security interests.
efforts by American diplomats, there is a sense in Southeast Asia
that the U.S. is passively relinquishing its leadership to China.
Gaining lost ground will require cultivating alliances,
establishing new relationships, and strengthening trade and
investment commitments in the region.
It is not too late to
regain the trust and confidence of Southeast Asia and reaffirm
U.S. commitment to its security and economic development, but
that trust must be earned through a comprehensive, consistent,
and determined foreign policy in the region.
Dillon is Senior Policy Analyst for Southeast
Asia and John J. Tkacik, Jr.,
is Senior Research Fellow in China Policy in the Asian Studies
Center at The Heritage Foundation.
a prescient analysis of efforts to exclude the United States from
the Asian summit framework, see "Whatever Happened to the Pacific
Rim?" The Economist, November 12, 2000, at
(October 11, 2005).
"Agreement on Trade in Goods of the Framework Agreement on
Comprehensive Economic Co-operation Between the Association of
Southeast Asian Nations and the People's Republic of China,"
November 29, 2004, at www.aseansec.org/ 16647.htm (October
Perlez, "Integration of Asean Economies Is Pressed," The
International Herald Tribune, October 6, 2003, cached at
(October 11, 2005).
pulasu san shuno kaigi, on soli ga kyoryoku kyoka ni nana teian"
(ASEAN+3 Leaders Conference, Premier Wen proposes seven points to
strengthen cooperation), Renmin Wang Ribenyu Ban (Beijing,
Japanese version), November 30, 2004, at
(October 12, 2005).
Vatikiotis, "A Diplomatic Offensive," Far Eastern Economic
Review, August 5, 2004.
Lloyd-Smith, "US to Extend Naval Role from New Base," South
China Morning Post, March 25, 2001, p. 8.
Saywell, "'Places Not Bases' Puts Singapore on the Line," Far
Eastern Economic Review, May 17, 2001, p. 28.
Press, "Singapore PM to Back Beijing If Taiwan Caused War," The
Wall Street Journal Online, August 22, 2004.
Press, "China: Singapore PM's Taiwan Comments 'Conducive to
Peace,'" The Wall Street Journal Online, August 25,
Liang Junjian po Gaoxiong gang, Shangyue Tai Jian po Xing beiju,
Xian wei yingxiaang Junshi Jiaoliu" (Two naval vessels from
Singapore dock in Kaoshiung harbor, last month's denial of Taiwan
vessels' docking in Singapore clearly did not affect military
exchanges), World Journal, April 15, 2005, p. A4.
a further discussion of this, see John J. Tkacik, Jr., "A Fresh
Start for America's Asian Policy," The Asian Wall Street
Journal, December 1, 2004, at
11, 2005; subscription required).
Xu Xiangli, "Zhonggong Chengnuo Junyuan Feilubin" (PRC commits to
military aid to Philippines), China Times (Taipei),
September 30, 2002.
Pazzibungan-Porcalla, "China Asks RP to Joint Naval Drill,"
Philippine Daily Inquirer, May 24, 2005.
Chok Tong, "Constructing a New East Asia," The Straits Times
(Singapore), June 10, 2005, p. A16. For the text of the speech, see
Goh Chok Tong, "Constructing East Asia," speech at Asia Society
Conference, Bangkok, June 9, 2005, at
app.sprinter.gov.sg/data/pr/20050609995.htm (October 11,