The southeast Asian region is an economic hot spot — an area which presents enormous possibilities to superpowers like the US and China to gain commercial leverage in these economically trying times.
The US has been battling economic drought and seeks to gain a foothold in an area which is prosperous and seen as one of the fastest growing in the world. China merely wants to bulldoze its way through in a quest towards opening up more and more trading outposts all across the world. This spot, however, is a little closer to home and presents an ideal opportunity to increase its growing influence, thanks to the presence of huge gas reserves in the South China Sea.
In the light of this scenario US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s plea for Asean unity against China in dealing with territorial disputes — namely the South China Sea issue — comes across as duplicitous. As Clinton urges the stakeholders to work towards a meaningful and result-oriented process, without coercion and show of force, she is tacitly playing her cards and revealing her hand: That the US wants to be a major player in the region.
Clinton’s support for a regionally endorsed six-point plan to ease tensions, by implementing a code of conduct for all claimants to disputed islands, will not come without Washington getting a reasonable slice of the cake for its services. Such a move will be seen as a red flag by China and the region will in time could potentially become a platform for a US-China political and economic confrontation.
This is why the situation presents Asean countries with an opportunity to realise their true potential and function with an independent, but cautious, mindset without being influenced by either Beijing, or Washington. They must exercise their sovereignty and make the right choice without the pressure of undue influence. They should not become accomplices to an arms race.
While Clinton advocates the dispute to be resolved through collaboration, by as early as November, China is seeking individual agreements with countries with a view towards giving it more control. A disagreement between the two superpowers is on the cards, but it can be avoided if the individual nations choose to act with responsibility coupled with tact.