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Outcome of APEC-EAS: Competing interests at play

While trade was high on the agenda at the APEC and East Asia Summit, the power struggle between China and US took center stage as both extensively lobbied for their geo-strategic interests. After US’ military and economic pivot towards Asia, China has also stepped up its engagement in the region. However, for US, the road to success in the region will be smoother than that of China, as Beijing will have to be much more willing to accommodate and compromise on sensitive issues like the South China Sea and Senkaku dispute, if it wants to reestablish its influence as an Asia-Pacific power.


The two events came at a time when the whole region is struggling to overcome economic sluggishness and geo-political instability. Although US and China are offering economic incentives to enhance their respective political and strategic influences in the region, the race to increase geo-strategic and military supremacy remains complicated and creates confusion.

At the summits, China pledged to avoid escalating tensions while it will work with South-East Asian nations on a code of conduct (CoC) for the South China Sea, though it again warned powers like the US to stay out of the disputes in Asia-Pacific. China is clear that any negotiations on the South China Sea dispute should only be among the concerned parties and devoid of US interference.

China, by agreeing for talks on a code of conduct for the waters that are rich in oil, fish and gas has adopted a softer tone after rising tensions with countries like Vietnam, Taiwan and Philippines, who have sought US support. China also sought to tone down tensions stemming from the dispute by talking to countries individually, perhaps in a bid to reduce a unified front against it.

At the same time, China has unfolded investment and development initiatives for the region and signed many economic deals with countries like Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia to send a signal of tactical adjustment. Meanwhile, highlighting the long partnership with the region, John Kerry provoked the ASEAN members to maintain a united stand to discourage China’s increasing assertiveness in territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Citing economic and security issues as critical to US national interests and its Rebalancing Asia policy, Kerry announced Washington’s firm commitment to ensure that the world’s busiest commercial sea lanes remain open and territorial claims are peacefully resolved.

US President Barack Obama’s absence at the summits in Bali and Brunei, because of the partial US government shutdown, made the ASEAN leaders to doubt US commitment about its so called pivot to Asia. It also gave China a desired space to press for more influence in the region.

Of course, this will increase China’s influence in the region as it will act as a countermeasure to US’ Asia policy, but it will also force China to be more accommodative and compromising in the region as far as sensitive issues like the territorial disputes are concerned.

The South-East Asian nations certainly realize that engaging economically with China is good for them, but they will definitely use this as a bargaining chip to settle the disputes in their favor as Beijing would loathe any US presence in the region.

This is precisely what the US is safe from. Because it does not have any tension with any of these countries and enjoys a rather smooth relation with them, thus, there will be no preconditions set in achieving the agenda it wishes to achieve in Asia. However, US must ensure that its larger rivalry with China does not overshadow its other economic engagements in the region like the TPP agreement, which unfortunately, was not inked. ASEAN is a prized catch both politically and economically in the increasing rivalry between China and US.

 The two realize that in order to re-assert their dominance in the region they have to fight hard against interests of each other. In addition, other non member partners like Japan, South Korea, and India, who are also seeking greater presence in the region, had their own set of expectations from the summit. Therefore, it is in the hands of the member countries of ASEAN to ensure their economic development and security while not relying too much on external elements, because that downplays their own autonomy in the region to a great extent.

China will have to understand clearly that if it pushes hard or picks quarrel on territorial issues then its neighbors will happily court US and Washington will undercut China’s rise or any plan to dominate Asia-Pacific theatre at any point.