US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was on her Asian tour earlier this month. Her discussions touched on many issues, from the South China Sea (SCS) territorial dispute to the crisis in Syria.
In Timor Leste, she sought to advance economic development in the region and issued US$6.5 million in scholarship grants.
While in Jakarta, Clinton urged ASEAN countries to unite in solving territorial issues with China.
She also reiterated strong US support for the regional initiative to ease rising tensions over the disputed island in the SCS.
In China, she was assertive in conveying possible resolutions to the SCS territorial dispute. She also spoke about the Syrian situation, with Clinton asking China, which keeps on blocking the UN Security Council’s move to sanction Syria, to stop backing the regime of President Bashar Assad.
It seems that Clinton’s visit has failed to persuade the Chinese as Beijing remains a staunch supporter of the Assad regime. Beijing also reiterated that the SCC territorial dispute is an issue of Chinese sovereignty and integrity, and isonly willing to discuss it through bilateral talks.
Her tour ended in Brunei in a move to buttress escalating SCS conflict and to coax Brunei in preparation for its ASEAN chairmanship in 2013.
But what is the meaning of her visit to Asia?
First, she is reaffirming the US’s “pivotal” role in the Asia Pacific; the US wants to revive its economic weight in the region.
There is no doubt that the center of economic gravity has now shifted to Asia, and Southeast Asia has a strategic role to play concerning this trend.
Second, it is a way for the US to critically evaluate its choices for crafting a strategy for Asia Pacific in the midst of a rising China.
In my view, there are only three courses; whether the US recapitalizes its forces in the region, encourages its allies to take on larger security responsibilities or limits its commitments.
Third, this may have been seen as a “divide-and-rule” strategy used by the US to weaken China’s political, economic and security influences in the region. As for that case, ASEAN countries have the dilemma of presenting themselves equally to the US and China.
Fourth, encircling China in preparation for a US centered hegemonic order. The US envisages itself as a “pivot” to Asia Pacific, where it can use its leadership in the shaping of the region and its future.
In the new US Defense Strategic Review (January 2012), it is mentioned that the challenge posed by a rising China is at the very heart of America’s new defense strategy in the region.
Fifth, to view the importance of Chinese shipping lanes and Sea Lines of Communication from the Persian Gulf, Indian Ocean and Malacca Strait. With the visit to Timor Leste, it also highlights the geostrategic importance of the eastern flank of Indonesia.
Eighty percent of China’s oil imports still pass through the Malacca Strait and this is why it is a vital choke point. However, the US seems to have a contingency plan in the eastern part of Indonesia if the crisis erupts.
Sixth, the US wants its traditional alliances in the region to relax and feel secure with its growing military capabilities in Asia, and to not appear to be at odds with China.
The US does not want any rivalry within the region as the guarantor of peace and stability. The US’ plans to deploy new missile defenses can be seen from this context.
Last but not least, the US wants to reaffirm its presence and influence in the region, or at least to neutralize China in order to sustain the status-quo.
China’s desire to reduce US influence is an uneasy fact for the US. The “battle” of ensuring order in Asia Pacific then rests on how the US continues and consolidates its current pattern of hegemonic order.
ASEAN countries are at risk of division if they cannot, internally, find solutions to break the “battle” of this regional leadership between US and China.
Outside of intra-ASEAN and the EU; China, Japan and the US continue to be ASEAN’s major trade partners. China is the fastest growing partner with its growth tipping more than 10-fold since the Asian financial crisis in 1998.
While the US and Japan remained to be the top providers of ASEAN inflows for 2010, outside the EU and intra-ASEAN.
It is likely that the visit of the secretary of state will yield a closer relationship with the Asia Pacific
and greater commitment from the US toward the territorial dispute in the SCS.
This can be seen as an extended deterrence of China for the sake of US interest. The structure of competition and cooperation coexist in Asia.
ASEAN has a strategic balancing role within the region to maintain its independent voice and constructive role in the international community. It employs three general strategies, which are bridge building, engagement and hedging to maintain strategic stability and minimize risk.
Indonesia therefore plays a vital role as it must become the glue for the cohesiveness of ASEAN and because of her free and active foreign policy she can give structure and be the bridge between the US and China.
*A published version of this article has appeared under the same title in the Jakarta Post, Tuesday, September 18, 2012. http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2012/09/18/the-meaning-hillary-clinton-s-visit-asia.html