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Faith placed in Uncle Sam as neighbourhood warily welcomes China

The Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, was quick to play down suggestions yesterday that American military surveillance drones could begin operating from Australia's remote Cocos Islands.

Deep in the Indian Ocean, 3700 kilometres from Darwin, the islands are closer to major south-east Asian capitals including Jakarta, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok: neighbours that Canberra cannot afford to get offside.

But Smith might have to worry more about convincing sceptics at home. South-east Asian countries, worried about the effect a rising China is having on the regional power balance, welcome America's presence in the neighbourhood more than many Australians realise.

Even Burma's notoriously authoritarian military regime is warming to the US. Byelections this weekend are a welcome sign that the brutal dictatorship may be inching towards democracy. But, perhaps importantly for Smith, the Burmese generals' newfound taste for reform has a strategic element too.

Burma has long been a Chinese client state. It now hopes that political reforms will lead to closer engagement with the West, particularly the US.

Burma's strategic shift is the most dramatic but not the only such realignment taking place across south-east Asia.


The region's historical relationships with China and America vary wildly. But the uniformity with which they are moving towards the US in response to China's rise is striking.

All south-east Asian countries have close relationships with China, and all want to take advantage of China's economic rise. Yet none wants China to be in a position where it can dominate the region strategically.

The US has long been the preponderant military power in the region, whose nations, by and large, are happy for it to stay that way. They tolerate US primacy, because it has proved to be benign, and welcome its presence because it preserves the balance of power, enabling them to get on with the job of economic development without costly wars.

Like Australia, south-east Asian countries want to maintain the status quo for as long as possible, allowing them to free-ride on the US's implicit security guarantee while being lifted by the rising tide of China's growth.

Yet they know that is far from assured: they worry about a future where their major economic partner may come into conflict with their security guarantor.

South-east Asian strategies for dealing with this dilemma should be instructive for Australia, as we ponder what the ''Asian century'' might look like and our place in it. Although south-east Asian countries have remarkably different strategic outlooks, their strategy for dealing with regional security is essentially the same.

All pursue relationships with China and the US (although for Burma, and its neighbours Laos and Cambodia, these relations are in their infancy). They know that close ties with both is the best insurance against conflict emerging with (or between) either. And while countries such as Thailand and the Philippines have formal links to the US, they certainly don't want to be alienated from China in case it does grow to become the region's leading political power.

Paradoxically, some know they need to shift their own policies to preserve this status quo. Burma is the most striking example; Vietnam is another.

The emerging economic powerhouse of Vietnam shares a border with China, and the two countries are involved in a series of territorial disputes over islands in the resource-rich South China Sea, off Vietnam's coast. China stoked tensions last year when it reportedly cut cables being dragged by a Vietnamese oil exploration ship in the disputed waters.

Anxious about China's increasingly assertive posture in the sea, Hanoi has shifted noticeably closer to the US. The enthusiasm with which Vietnam has welcomed America's attention is an arresting symbol of just how much maritime south-east Asian states, spooked by the spectre of conflict in the South China Sea, hope the US will help keep China's naval ambitions in check.

Burma's case is quite different, but much of the thinking is the same. In October, the Burmese government cancelled a wildly unpopular Chinese-backed dam project, in the first sign that the regime wants to push back against China's dominance of their economy, and increasingly, their security policy.

In Australia, there is debate about whether the US should cede some power to China and accept its strategic rise - a debate fuelled by the musings of the new Foreign Affairs Minister, Bob Carr, about the wisdom of US troop deployments in Darwin. But there are bigger questions about whether the rest of Asia would support such a concession.

South-east Asian governments see overt conflict between China and the US as their worst nightmare, so the Australian government could quickly alienate its neighbours if it supported moves that stoke tension between the two major powers. (Hence the warning in Australia last week from Indonesia's Foreign Minister, Marty Natalegawa, about the danger of resorting to ''traditional alliances and fault lines'' in response to China's rise.)

But, ultimately, south-east Asian governments like Beijing know Australia and the US have a long-standing and close relationship. What's more, they are working carefully to build their relationships with the US too.

South-east Asia - even Burma - welcomes America's substantial presence, not because it changes the status quo but because it helps preserve it.

Jessica Brown is a research fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies. Her report Southeast Asia's American Embrace is released today at cis.org.au.

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