By Mark J. Valencia
THE US 'pivot' towards Asia in foreign and defence policy has rattled the region. China perceives the US move as an attempt to constrain its 'rise'. As if confirming Beijing's worst fears, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, Chief of US Naval Operations, said that China's rising capability could limit US access to the South China Sea and that Washington will continue its efforts to ensure 'freedom of navigation' there.
While Vietnam and the Philippines welcome the policy shift, other Asean nations are less sanguine. Indeed, some are outright worried that US-China rivalry will dominate regional political affairs and increase instability. Even Singapore, an American 'strategic partner', cautioned the United States against using extreme anti-China rhetoric in domestic political debate in this election year.
But US-China competition for the 'hearts and minds' of South-east Asian countries has already begun to undermine Asean's attempts to maintain control of regional security management. Regarding the vexed South China Sea disputes, the US has essentially sided with the Asean claimants (its ally the Philippines, and Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam).
Ironically, US backing may make it more difficult for Asean and China to agree on a code of conduct because some claimants may be more assertive and even take riskier actions than they otherwise would. Some even suggest that this works to the US advantage by pushing some Asean members towards the US.
The US has quickly begun to implement the pivot. It entered talks with the Philippines to expand its military presence there including deploying surveillance aircraft to increase 'maritime domain awareness' in the region.
It is also discussing with Thailand the deployment of American warships in the country. This is in addition to deploying new littoral combat ships to Singapore (which has constructed a naval base designed to berth American aircraft carriers), and 'rotating' up to 2,500 American troops to Darwin along with assets to be used in the event of a military contingency in Asia.
As Mr Hugh White, formerly Australia's chief strategic planner in the Defence Department, put it: '... since (then-US President Richard) Nixon went to China, Australia has not seen the alliance as a military alignment against China. Now we do. That is the big significance of what the Gillard government has done.'
In an extraordinary opinion piece in the Japan Times, Australia's former conservative prime minister, Mr Malcolm Fraser, criticised the US military deployment to Darwin as 'pointless', without reason, and unnecessarily dividing Australian public opinion.
To top it off, it was leaked that the expanded US military presence in Australia is eventually likely to include stationing of the newest version of US Global Hawk surveillance planes in the Cocos Islands and perhaps even on Christmas Island only 354km south of Jakarta, Indonesia. The drones would likely surveil the South China Sea and the Malacca Strait.
If China had any doubt about where Australia stood in the US 'scheme of things', it doesn't now. Indonesia's response to the news was to file a diplomatic protest with Australia and the US, complaining that the surveillance flights would violate its sovereignty.
Ratcheting up the pressure, the US has told Asean that it must come up with a common and clear position on a code vis-a-vis China. Some pressure may be helpful - but too much pressure could crack and even split Asean on this issue. As Mr Simon Tay, chairman of Singapore's Institute of International Affairs, suggested, 'the tenor and intention of that engagement (America with Asean on the South China Sea issues) can be a concern'.
By allowing the US to base troops in Darwin, Australia may well have helped 'strain' a regional grouping whose increased unity is in its clear long-term interests.
Apparently at China's bidding, Cambodia, as current chair of Asean, removed the South China Sea from the agenda for this week's Asean summit - much to the frustration of the Philippines and Vietnam which have borne the brunt of China's assertiveness on the issue. 'Cambodia does not want to use Asean to square up against another country,' explained government spokesperson Khieu Kanharith.
Although Asean has become adept at hedging and balancing, its unity, diplomatic skills and style are certainly being tested by the US pivot.
Indeed, Asean's method of decision- making based on consensus, consultation, and proceeding in a step-by-step manner may not be appropriate for dealing with this big power rivalry.
And as China's military might grows and the US steps up its involvement in the region, the window of opportunity for peaceful settlement of the South China Sea disputes is closing.
The writer is with the Seattle-based National Bureau of Asian Research.