HONG KONG — Summit meetings are at best symbolic. But last week’s East Asian summit in Hanoi ranked very high in symbolism.
The meeting showed that the United States has recognized its need for diverse informal allies in the face of the rise of China, and that China has realized its promise of rising in peace is not taken at face value by its neighbors.
Thus, Russia, India, Japan, Australia and some of the Southeast Asian countries were there to deliver the message that all of them had a stake in not seeing that the concept of a Group of Two — a world divided between U.S. and Chinese spheres of influence — become reality.
Multilateralism in East Asia came of age in Hanoi.
The city was the natural location for this. Vietnam has been the most resolute of the Southeast Asian countries in standing up to China’s claims over the South China Sea and its islands. Vietnam’s sense of national identity and its martial record is second to none. Its economy offers big prospects for investors from Japan and the West; it probably has two decades of rapid growth ahead as it catches up with the likes of Thailand and Malaysia. Its Cam Ranh Bay has the potential to offer port facilities that would be the equal of any on the South China Sea.
Meanwhile, Vietnam has historically close links to a Russia anxious to play a bigger role in East Asian affairs, and to India, which has recently launched a “Look East” initiative in the realization that China presents a bigger challenge to New Delhi than Pakistan.
Japan and the West have been showering Vietnam with aid and trade. Now Vietnam is set to buy nuclear power plants from Japan and Russia, while Russia is to improve facilities at Cam Ranh Bay, which will be opened to all comers, offering the United States, and navies from other friendly countries, a facility close to the sea lanes — the reason why the United States and other powers are lined up with the Southeast Asian littoral states in opposing China’s claims on the South China Sea.
China can reasonably argue that Vietnam has gone out of its way to make its claims on the sea a central issue when they need not have been. But it has forced Beijing into more conciliatory language. China had added to the concerns of other nations about Beijing’s intentions with its aggressive posture over the cluster of small islands in the East China Sea — which Japan calls the Senkaku and China calls the Diaoyu — stirring up anti-Japanese sentiment at home and criticizing the United States, despite knowing that Washington could not go back on its 1972 decision to return the islands to Japan.
China has also recently riled India by pressing its territorial claims in Kashmir and the northeast frontier.
None of this suggests that countries in the region are overtly ganging up on China, with which they would like stable relations. All are aware of the trade benefits that China’s growth has brought and hope that China will continue to provide a motor for their economies, as the United States once did.
China is itself still building its strategic relationship with others in mainland Asia, notably Myanmar and Laos, and also tempting Thailand.
All of these governments know that the United States is no longer all-powerful, and some of them celebrate this fact. Resentments remain, ranging from double standards on economic and trade issues to America’s alleged meddling in the name of human rights issues. But concern over China’s potential to make its neighbors into tributary states is rising.
Some regional nations also see China more as a barrier to their industrialization than as a provider of know-how, capital and markets, as Japan and the U.S. have been. India and Indonesia fret that they import Chinese manufactured goods but sell mainly unprocessed raw materials. They worry about China’s attempt to use its currency to grab market share at their expense.
Southeast Asia is now the cockpit of a contest for influence involving several large and middling powers. It is also the place where the Chinese and Indian worlds meet the Malay world.
Issues and interests are diverse, economic and strategic ones sometimes at odds. This is not a black-and-white situation. But at root is the common agenda of how to manage China’s rapid rise and America’s slow decline.
Hanoi 2010 may not be the equivalent of the 1955 Bandung conference, which launched the Non-Aligned Movement as a counter to a two-bloc world. But it does signal the rise of multilateralism in Asian affairs in which China and the United States are the biggest players, but only two among many.