Asia: Three Divergent Visions, Increasing Tension
By: John Schaus
The August 10 meeting of foreign ministers from 27 countries in the Asia-Pacific region at the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF)—the gathering’s 20th anniversary—proved the latest opportunity for observers from every point on the globe to witness nations’ potentially divergent visions for the Asia Pacific.
One vision is articulated in the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, in which the 27 adhering nations commit to an open, inclusive, peaceful region with interactions based on the rule of law. A second vision was presented by President Obama in Australia in 2011. It is consistent with the ASEAN focus on rule of law but equally emphasizes the important role that the United States is playing, and will continue to play, throughout the Asia Pacific.
Both ASEAN and the United States have largely matched words with action, seeking to bolster regional cooperation, strengthen clear norms and laws, and enhance the capacity of regional institutions to address current and emerging issues in the region.
A third vision for the region has been put forward by China. It is less clearly explained than ASEAN’s or Obama’s, leaving room for confusion when words do not align with action. President Xi Jinping of China, in a speech this spring, alluded to the need for an open and inclusive architecture in Asia, but followed almost immediately with a list of issues defined unilaterally and inflexibly in zero-sum formulations. The most recent meeting of the ARF highlighted a new twist on this phenomenon. At the meeting, China’s foreign minister reportedly rejected a proposal by the United States to cease provocative activities, implying that such a proposal is suspicious and that it would place in jeopardy China’s willingness to negotiate with ASEAN on a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. The catch is that China’s 12-year intransigence on a Code of Conduct is what has left countries seeking another mechanism to create clear rules and to reduce tension.