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US-China rivalry shifts to mainland SEA - Kavi Chongkittavorn

The sense of deja vu at last week's annual Asean foreign ministers meeting in Singapore regarding progress on the code of conduct in the South China Sea -- an agreement with China on a single draft for future negotiations -- is an ominous sign that the regional grouping is already at the centre of US-China rivalry.

Both superpowers are determined to cooperate, compete and confront -- not necessarily in that order -- whenever they deem such approaches are warranted, using the familiar battlefield of Southeast Asia, snugly situated at the crossroads of the Indo-Pacific.

Lest we forget, the two clashed during the Cold War over ideological differences. After the Berlin Wall collapsed, the region managed to survive in one piece -- enemies turned friends -- and has since then enjoyed stable economic development that has helped to transform the 10 Asean countries into an economic powerhouse of 645 million people.

Leaders of great powers come to Asean-led meetings every year to make sure that they do not count themselves out. Today, power diffusion is on display.

In the current global strategic environment with high competition and conflict, not to mention the tit-for-tat US-China trade tariffs, Asean has to act prudently as a group.

The regional grouping has shown its mettle in handling delicate negotiations on the code of conduct in the South China Sea with China. The South China Sea will remain a hot spot until all parties in the conflict follow their commitment not to militarise their activities in the disputed areas and move forward toward complying with the code.

On North Korea's nuclear crisis, Asean has also turned out to be a key player, not just a conduit. Despite continued US pressure to isolate Pyongyang, the regional bloc has continued to engage the beleaguered nation in its unique way. Unlike Mr Trump, Asean cannot afford to engage in fake claims of diplomatic triumph or unsubstantiated development, especially on devastating nuclear issues.

In coming months, the future of US-China challenges will move to mainland Southeast Asia, where half of the Asean members livelihoods depends on the great Mekong River. At the moment, the fate of the Mekong's development and resource utilisation lies at the heart of Indo-Pacific, even though Washington places emphasis on the maritime sector.

In the Mekong region, the US has been perceived as a weak and inefficient partner. A dozen countries and international organisations have been involved in development programmes in the region, but none have produced tangible outcomes like the three-year-old Lancang-Mekong Cooperation, an inter-governmental mechanism among China and the five lower Mekong countries -- Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

The lower Mekong nations have decided to take the bull by the horns, attempting to reshape and map out long-term strategies to ensure the river can continue to serve their developmental goals without outside interference and coercion. Their leaders met in Bangkok in June to reinvigorate the 2003 subregional organisation known as the Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (Acmecs). The summit produced a five-year master plan for connectivity beginning next year.

In the near future, the Mekong region's pattern of cooperation will shift toward broader frameworks that encompass southern China. The Acmecs leaders have already discussed possible linkage of the Pan-Pearl River Delta Cooperation, which covers China's nine southern provinces, Hong Kong and Macao, and the behemoth Belt and Road Initiative. With the US announcement of the Indo-Pacific strategy, all these cooperative frameworks on the mainland would be accelerated to make way for the regional countries to set forth joint cooperative frameworks and governance.

Notably, last week's annual Asean meeting recognised the indispensability of Asean to the future of US-China relations. In retrospect, the US and China have long designed and sharpened unique strategic plans to engage with and win over Asean members, reflecting both their common and different visions.

After the Cold War, the US continued to reign in the region. Subsequent US administrations under presidents Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barack Obama had their own strategies to woo Southeast Asia and sustain US influence. Against this background has always been China's rise.

Under Mr Clinton, the US decided to go for multilateral security cooperation rather than bilateral cooperation due to budget and personnel constraints at home, giving rise to the establishment of the Asean Regional Forum -- now the region's biggest venue to discuss sensitive security matters.

After the Sept 11, 2001 attacks, both Mr Bush and Mr Obama paid even more attention to a region considered a second front in the campaign against terrorism. In retrospect, the two US administrations provided some bedrock policies and measures that displayed Washington's commitment to peace and security in the region. Mr Obama rebalanced US policy toward its allies and friends as a means to deal with China's growing influence.

For the current US president, when it comes to Asean policy, it is hard to gauge what he has in mind. While Mr Trump tried to demolish major Obama foreign policy initiatives and achievements, he has not yet changed a single thing on US policy toward Asean. The only complaint the regional grouping has today is the 18-month absence of a US envoy designated for Asean. In fact, it is an open secret that the Trump administration is building on the successful and strong Asean-US foundations that were laid down by the Obama administration as manifested in the Sunnylands Declaration of February 2016.

Under Mr Trump, the US wants strong military ties with its security allies and friends in Asean, needing to ensure that its place in the emerging regional security architecture is firmly embedded. Last week, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced US$300 million to help boost security cooperation, adding to the $113 million to assist Asean in technology, energy and infrastructure. With the ongoing US security commitment, the regional bloc can look beyond the limits of US-China relations.

Moreover, Asean also wants to strengthen ties with other dialogue partners. For example, its relations with Russia have been stuck despite efforts to reboot and reset their bilateral ties in the past two decades. Asean has been blunt with Russia -- the only great power that is still not its strategic partner -- demanding more concrete results from their agreed action plans.

However, this could be changed when Russian President Vladimir Putin reorients his country's foreign policy. After his first appearance at the inaugural East Asia Summit (EAS) in 2005 as an observer, he might join the upcoming EAS to signal a new re-engagement with the bloc. Like China, Russia is promoting free trade and multilateralism -- a position that augurs well for Asean. Russia is planning to invite the regional grouping to join the expected plan to expand the Eurasia Union as trade pressure increases on Asean members.

Asean-China relations are dynamic, with ups and downs. Toward the end of Mr Obama's second term, China realised that it needed a broader and long-term policy to engage with the region and beyond to sustain its influence, both in economic and security matters. Since 2010, the South China Sea dispute has been the main focus of Asean-China relations. Now that the draft for future negotiations on the code of conduct, expected to be wrapped up next year, for the troubled sea has been agreed upon, Asean-China ties are bound to improve.

In the future, Asean might collectively endorse the Belt and Road Initiative and reconsider more than 100 other proposals from China.

Beijing's top echelons recently reassigned Asean as the No.1 priority in China's periphery strategy. If the current trade war with the US continues, the economic fallout would be felt throughout the region. Chinese leaders have already expressed the willingness to ease the difficulties the region might face in the near future.

Asean has the ability to create an environment in which the US and China can compete and still coexist without going to war. After all, the grouping has no policy to stay on one side. Although certain Asean members might have a penchant to support either the US or China, consensus-based decision-making is still imperative in weeding out disagreements when major decisions are being made.