Asian Integration — Made in U.S.A.?

Did the United States trigger Asian diplomatic integration — or is Asia defending itself against an overbearing United States?

November 13, 2003

Did the United States trigger Asian diplomatic integration — or is Asia defending itself against an overbearing United States?

There certainly has been a new momentum in Asia. The rules of Asia's diplomacy game are changing dramatically. Old foes are patching up age-old disagreements like never before.

At the forefront of all this activity is China, whose foreign policy strategy has shifted tremendously. It has all but kissed and made up with India — whereas its traditionally close ties with Pakistan seem to be weakening. As a token of the new Sino-Indian partnership, the countries agreed to hold joint naval exercises in late 2003.

Pakistan, for its part, has had to put a brave face to the November 3, 2003 summit between President Hu and his Pakistani counterpart, President Musharraf. The long-expected agreement on further Sino-Pakistani nuclear cooperation has been put on hold.

In addition, China has widened its cooperation with Russia — another former foe. This will go far beyond the traditional Chinese arm purchases, which earned Moscow a hefty $2 billion in 2002.

Both nations are negotiating the construction of a major oil pipeline, which would make China much less dependent on oil from the Gulf region. That move would also make it less dependent on indirect U.S. military protection.

Next on the agenda is ASEAN. Not only has China managed to get a permanent foot into the organization. The association's integration has received a major boost through the Bali Accord II on October 8, 2003, which set the year 2020 as a target date for an ASEAN economic union.

Singapore and Thailand have been pushing things even further, as they move toward a bilateral free trade agreement that would be open to other ASEAN members prior to 2020. The working formula is "two plus X" — meaning Singapore and Thailand would welcome any ASEAN member to their club.

Why all this action? It seems that the U.S.-led war against terrorism has given impetus to strengthened Asian integration. For starters, there are increasingly close ties between the United States and individual Asian countries.

Singapore was the first Asian country to sign a free trade agreement with Washington in May 2003. Thailand also enjoys extremely close relations with the United States.

Prime Minister Thaksin's unwavering support for the U.S. efforts was rewarded with lucrative contracts for the Thai army engineer corps for Iraq's reconstruction. There are also ongoing talks about a U.S.-Thai free trade agreement.

The U.S. diplomatic push proposing bilateral agreements left, right and center resulted in Asian countries taking this development one step further. Operating under the U.S. umbrella, they now do the same with each other — or so U.S. officials would have us believe.

True, many Asian countries have always shied away from international — and even regional — cooperation for reasons of sovereignty. They are also leery of any approach that looks like meddling in the internal affairs of neighboring countries. ASEAN has been (in)famous for that.

Yet, the thought that the United States has deliberately brought about a breakthrough is just too good to be true. More likely is that closer Asian cooperation is the inadvertent consequence of U.S. bullying.

One could argue that the U.S. explanation for recent developments in Asia is taking on an almost self-congratulating character. For if increased Asian cooperation results in an Asia much less dependent on the United States, one might as well take credit for it.

A look at some Asian views has a sobering effect on any notions of Asian integration under the banner of U.S. leadership. One does not even have to look at U.S. rivals in Asia. China, of course, will have a very different take on recent developments — which for Beijing have not been that recent anyway.

It is worthwhile remembering that China's diplomatic turnaround set in well over 20 years ago, when the country's foreign ministry introduced much improved training facilities for its diplomats. Most Chinese foreign ministry officials now speak at least one foreign language — and many have studied or lived abroad.

Thanks to these developments, China's foreign policy has gained a new level of sophistication — and its diplomats are unlikely to congratulate the United States for this.

A look at close U.S. allies in the region reveals the real roots of Asia's heightened diplomatic activities. India, for example, was one of the first Asian countries to offer the United States support after September 11, 2001.

Yet, despite initial cooperation, Indian commentators fail to appreciate the benevolent role of the United States in the region's changing diplomatic landscape. The Times of India wrote: "For a country like India, the choice is clear: It must join hands with others in Asia and elsewhere to resist this growing U.S. intervention."

Then, there is Singapore. Ever since the British left in the 1960s, the city-state relied on the United States for its security. In 1992, U.S. military aircraft and naval vessels were given access to Singapore facilities. Singapore routinely hosts port calls by U.S. naval vessels and landings by U.S. military aircraft.

But its current Prime Minister, Goh Chok Tong, emphasized the point when he made clear that Asian leaders are rather focusing on China these days so as to ensure economic growth and regional security.

Viewed against this background, it is hard to say that Asian integration is a deliberate U.S. product based on a U.S. foreign policy strategy for Asia. Rather, Asia's leaders have increased bilateral and regional cooperation to counterbalance the United States.

After all, what good does it do if Asian countries remain concerned about not meddling in each others affairs — while the United States is definitely doing so?

To prevent the U.S. juggernaut from determining the rules in its own backyard, Asian nations are moving closer to build up sufficient diplomatic strength between each other.

For those reasons, it appears as if Ms. Rice's remarks about Asian integration triggered by U.S. design may have been targeted at a domestic audience — rather than at Asia.