For the audience in Washington, Assistant Secretary for East Asia and the Pacific Kurt Campbell's speech on June 26 at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies was very fitting and calculated.
He stressed the U.S. strategy in Asia and highlighted Secretary of State Secretary Hilary Clinton's visit to the region with a big delegation, including private and public sectors and philanthropists this week after a series of meetings in Phnom Penh during the Asean annual ministerial conference.
This time he mentioned quite a few countries in Southeast Asia that were pivotal to the U.S.: Laos, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, Myanmar and, of course, the Philippines; the revitalized alliance.
He even praised the Philippines, especially President Benigno Aquino, as one of the best governments the U.S. had worked with in the past 20 years. He also named a prominent member in the audience whom he recognized. That happened to be Indonesian Ambassador Dino Patti Djalal. Again, it was Thailand that was conspicuously absent.
The fact that Campbell forgot to mention Thailand even though the Thai-US strategic dialogue was held less than two weeks earlier in Washington DC, where he had animated discussions with the Thai delegation, was a strong indication that all was not well with the Thai-U.S. alliance. Obviously, the joint statement of their strategic dialogue failed to reflect the ground reality of the much-troubled relations.
Washington is once again caught in a Catch-22 situation in this important bilateral arrangement. Two proposals – the humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and the Nasa project on climate change – were designed to increase the value of the much forgotten ally.
Unfortunately, they were politicized to the point that any decent bilateral cooperation was no longer possible between the two countries. If this trend continues, which is highly likely, Thailand will lose further its political and strategic clout besides harming Thai-US relations and the latter's overall strategies in the Asia-Pacific.
However, the U.S. can choose to ignore Thailand at its own peril. To sustain the rebalancing effort in the Asia-Pacific, all alliances must be functional and operational. At the moment, the Thai-U.S. alliance is an aberration and remains the weakest link in the security chain.
For a better outcome at the CSIS forum, he could have urged Thailand to come forth with clear indications on what could be expected out of Thai-U.S. relations in the months and years to come. Washington's attitude is notable that until and unless Thailand can overcome its own domestic divides, especially those pertaining to the alliance's obligation, there is nothing much the U.S. can do. Some strategists have argued that the U.S. does not need to rely on Thailand, its key ally during the Cold War, as before due to the U.S. success in the past two years in repositioning itself in the Asia-Pacific, winning new friends and reinvigorating old relationships.
Although the Thai-US relationship is nearly 180 years old, Thailand is just too unpredictable without any clear direction.
To firm up its position, the U.S. will now further engage the European Union as a pivot in Asia akin to their joint effort in Afghanistan and elsewhere. This is an important strategic shift because the U.S.-EU partnership on political and security matters has been previously confined to the Asean Regional Forum activities and sanctions against Myanmar. By collaborating with the U.S., the EU position within the region would be further strengthened. After all, unlike the divergent views, policies towards myriads of global issues, the EU views towards the Asia-Pacific remain united. Like the U.S., the EU is obsessed with China both in terms of economic and political power. They want to counterbalance the rising China.
At this juncture, the EU's standing in Asean is at a low point. Now, with the change of heart in Myanmar, the EU is playing a catch-up game with Asean as a group. At a recent Asean-EU ministerial meeting in Brunei, Asean literally turned down the EU request to jointly issue a statement on Myanmar's latest developments because the EU refused to end sanctions.
Worse, Asean also snubbed Lady Catherine Ashton's plan to accede to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation without following the Asean rules of procedure. The EU plan to join the East Asia Summit as soon as possible would be delayed further, impeding the U.S. effort to broaden the security agenda in the EAS. She needs to attend more Asean meetings. After years of putting it off, Britain finally is scheduled to sign the TAC this week in Phnom Penh with an eye on the EAS.
Suddenly, the U.S. has found its friends among dialogue partners and Asean as part of the long-term strategy to manage the rise of China right in its backyard. It is also the best time for the U.S.-led loose coalition within Asean as headlines on the South China Sea, after decades of benign diplomacy and neglect, have generated a stream of bad news and negative images of China.
This new psychological bulwark has already put China on the offensive, and it will certainly draw a response from China in the near future.
To break away from this encirclement within the Asean circuit, China has quickly found a natural friend in the same league – Russia.
Russia's third-time President Vladimir Putin is also paying more attention to the Asia-Pacific and the East Asia Summit. For the first time since it joined the leaders' meeting of Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, Moscow will play the host in Vladivostok in October with a strong message – Russia is a Pacific power, and it is here to stay as well.
From now on, Moscow will active at the ARF and EAS forums. After two decades of inertia, Russia has mustered enough confidence to submit a new proposal to Asean on a code of conduct for the Asia-Pacific to boost security cooperation – a carry over of the Soviet Union's practice. Russia will discuss the proposal, for which China has expressed support, with Asean this week in Phnom Penh.
With a more assertive U.S. and EU, China and Russia, Asean has to get its act together otherwise the fulcrum, which has made Asean valuable and attractive to world leaders, will turn into an entrapment with no exit strategies.
It remains to be seen how the upcoming East Asia Summit in mid-November will play out. But one template is clear: the Asia-Pacific will become the area for major powers to show their clout.
For good or for worse, Asean will be at the receiving end. If Asean, with its longstanding lack of commonality on key security issues, knows how to harness and play this new great game, then the region's stability and prosperity will continue with marginal collateral damage along the way.
Kavi Chongkittavorn is a widely read commentator on Asean and Southeast Asia culture.