Asean ‘has room for both US and China’

MORE China does not mean less US. That was the message Mr Christopher Hill, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, had for journalists when asked if Beijing was “winning by default” for influence of Asean at the expense of Washington.

“There is plenty of room for all of us,” he said.

He insisted that Beijing had a role to play in the region. “If you look at the growth of some of the countries of Asean, it’s been caused by the economic growth in China. From an economic point of view, it has been a positive development in South-east Asia.”

He believed that Asean states could chart their course without being influenced by any other country’s system as their model.

Mr Hill’s comments take place against a backdrop of Asean’s growing links with China.

China and Asean have been moving to set up a free-trade area since 2002, progressively lowering tariffs on a range of goods.

Trade between the two sides, expanding by nearly 40 per cent a year, looks likely to exceed US$200 billion (S$300 billion) a year by 2008, even before the FTA is due to be established in 2010.

Security cooperation has also deepened.

Some observers believe that the absence of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the Asean Regional Forum meeting in Manila sends a bad signal and could help Beijing build more clout in a region that is emerging from traditional wariness of China.

Chinese diplomacy has been adroit at occupying space that the US has left vacant.

Said Asia expert Walter Lohman from the Washington-based Heritage Foundation: “They (China) get far, far more PR bang for their buck than we do. And that PR leverages their diplomacy.”

Mr Hill, however, refused to see it as a tussle for influence in the region between the two giants.

He said: “We don’t see China as a ‘winner’. China is as engaged as it should be. I think to talk about winners and losers… is to really think in a very 19th century form.”

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