In a speech last week in Washington, D.C., marking the 40th
anniversary of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN),
Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Hsien Loong, urged, "We do not want
to see the growing cooperation among the Asian countries lead to
rival blocs that split the Pacific down the middle." A proposed
ASEAN-China military partnership has the potential to do just that,
aligning the democracies ofAmerica, Japan, and Australia on one
side, and China and ASEAN on the other.
Regional economic integration is a good thing. It is a product
of globalization and the drive to create efficient commercial
supply chains. ASEAN is situated in a hyper-competitive
neighborhood and is comprised of mostly small countries, measured
by size or national income. Regional economic integration and
outreach are vital to these countries' economic advancement.
As it develops economic partnerships, ASEAN routinely plays
partners off one another. In conversations with American officials
and businesses and in speeches and remarks to the press, ASEAN
leaders take pains to note that ASEAN has options other than the
U.S. This tactic has historically been an effective one. In the
current Asia-Pacific context, as long as it is applied in the
economic and business spheres, it is difficult to find fault with
it. When this tactic is used in military affairs, however, it is an
entirely different matter.
There have been several press reports this year of Chinese
proposals for joint military exercises with ASEAN and ASEAN's
receptivity to these proposals. Today, a newspaper article quoted
the commander of the U.S. Marine forces in the Pacific,
characterizing China's military bid as a "positive overture,"
leading one to conclude that these reports must be more than good
copy or the exercise of journalistic license.
ASEAN is in a difficult position. China has very effectively
engaged it since reaching a temporary political understanding on
the South China Sea several years ago. The "ASEAN-way" is
consensus-based and accommodating. This works against rejecting an
overture from an increasingly close partner like China. China's
charm offensive in Southeast Asia has essentially put ASEAN in a
But as difficult as it may be, ASEAN must draw a line at joint
The U.S. has two treaty allies in ASEAN--Thailand and the
Philippines--and it has a very close security partner in Singapore.
Joint China-ASEAN military exercises raise serious concerns about
the transfer of U.S. military doctrine, technology, and techniques.
Confidence-building "workshops," as discussed by ASEAN and China in
January of this year, are one thing, but any cooperation that has
the potential to make the PLA a better fighting force is a major
problem for the U.S.
Beyond security and the operational concerns associated with
joint exercises, there is the much bigger symbolism involved, the
significance of which is not likely lost on the Chinese. It will
also not go missed by observers in Washington.
American policymakers have a general affinity for democracies.
The deepening of the U.S. alliances with Japan and Australia is a
natural response to concerns about the emergence of China as a real
threat to regional stability and democratic values.
By contrast, particularly on Capitol Hill, the verdict on ASEAN
is still out. Its members run the gamut of political systems. On
the one side of the spectrum is democratic Indonesia. On the other
end is Burma, a constant thorn in ASEAN's side and an impediment to
ASEAN's relationships with the rest of the world. Thanks to its
2006 coup, Thailand and its military government have joined
anti-democratic Burma as ASEAN's most visible representative
ASEAN has had a tough time attracting attention from official
Washington. If attention is what ASEAN is after, then moving the
balancing game into the security sphere will finally get it. The
attention, however, will not come from their friends among the
economic literati. It will not come from business people. And it
will not result in a redoubling of positive U.S. engagement. The
newfound focus on ASEAN will come from policymakers in Washington
whose sole concern, both short-term and long-term, is the security
of the United States and whose principal concern in the
Asia-Pacific region is China. Their attention will not be
China's rise is the defining foreign policy challenge of the
era. ASEAN's reaching out to China to build its market appeal
threatens no one. But aligning itself with the truly threatening
aspect of this challenge--the modernization of the Chinese military
and, by association, its aggressive foreign policy--will ultimately
put ASEAN on the other side of a divided Pacific.
Walter Lohman is Director
of the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.