Careful Balancing Act for Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia seeks an American presence to balance against China but does not want to antagonize it either.

On Monday, South Korean president Lee Myung-bak visited Burma and promised to extend loans and grants to the poverty stricken country.

The surprise visit came as Japan and South Korea have stepped up their diplomatic engagement in Southeast Asia over the last month, which, in turn, comes on the heels of closer engagement by the United States since 2009.

This stems not only from a desire to gain access to the region’s natural resources but more importantly, to bolster their soft power in the Mekong region, an area that is becoming increasingly important as concerns persist about Chinese foreign policy amid the rapid modernization of the People’s Liberation Army. However, while the Mekong countries are interested in the economic and political benefits from closer relations with the United States, they are mindful of the risk of antagonizing China.

The Mekong countries include Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, even though the Mekong River begins on the Tibetan Plateau in China’s Yunnan Province where it is known as the Lancang River. The Mekong is revered by the locals and is considered the lifeblood of Southeast Asia with an estimated sixty million people depending on it for food, water and transportation.

Lee’s visit to Burma, the first by a South Korean president in 29 years, came after a regional summit in Thailand last week where South Korea promised to double its development aid to the Mekong region by 2015. During a summit in April, Japan pledged ¥600 billion ($7.4 billion) in aid, which was a renewal of a prior commitment of ¥500 billion that expired this year. Japan also wrote off half of the ¥500 billion ($6 billion) in debt that Burma owed it.

The United States jump started their engagement back in 2009 with the Lower Mekong Initiative, targeting Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam with increased development aid. Washington also began lifting sanctions on Burma when it adopted political reforms and held what was considered by observers a mostly free and fair election in April.

Burma was cut off from Western investment and international aid for the last thirty years while it was under military rule which gave China virtually free rein over the country’s resources.

The Americans have also taken more overt measures to demonstrate their presence in the region. Last month, the United States held noncombat maritime exercises with the Vietnamese navy and military maneuvers with the Philippines.

There is still tension between China and the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal and between China and Vietnam, which have a dispute over the Paracel Islands, in addition to the other disputes with nations fronting the South China Sea.

The governments in the Mekong region are faced with a delicate balancing act. While they are open to greater engagement with the United States and their allies due to concerns over China’s rise, they are careful not to embrace them too tight and alienate the Chinese.

China’s long-term security plans in the region are often vague and cloaked in secrecy. On top of the lack of transparency, China has refused to submit to a multilateral forum for negotiations with its neighbors over the territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Instead, it remains firm in demanding bilateral talks, fueling suspicion that it prefers this as a way to exercise leverage over smaller countries for a more favorable outcome for itself.

Complicating matters for a negotiated outcome to these disputes is that governments have often resorted to using the issue to stoke nationalism in their countries to rally support for the government, making it harder for them to compromise now.

Given the strategic uncertainty and the fear of being bullied, Mekong countries share an interest with the United States in balancing China’s presence in the region. The Obama Administration’s much heralded Asian “pivot” is clear evidence of the importance which the Americans attach to Asia, a part of the world it has identified as strategically vital to the United States in the twenty-first century.

The administration’s dual approach is to reassure nervous allies about American staying power in Asia and to balance China’s rising power.

The distrust, lack of transparency and outstanding territorial disagreements between China and its neighbors means that relations in Southeast Asia will remain unsettled and vulnerable to flareups. Going forward, given their size and location, the Mekong countries will remain in the difficult position of trying to accommodate both sides, while staying out of what is shaping up to be a wary relationship between China and the United States.