The latest report from the internationally-acclaimed Stockholm International Peace Research Institute proved the pessimistic expectation was right. The prestigious think-tank confirmed the buying spree for weapons in South-East Asia. From 2005 to 2009 expenditures increased five times. There is neither crisis nor slowdown for an arm race. In addition, in North-East Asia tension exacerbates in the Korean peninsula, while Taiwan and Japan are still fully dependant on military umbrella from the USA.
China’s standing is based on 2 main assumptions: on one side it does not want to be perceived as a common enemy by the other states; on the other it feels as surrounded by hostile neighbours. Beijing’s first reaction was cautious, ready to show the arm race is not against China. Since it has no territorial or political ambition – it has been argued – there is non need to be protected.
Arm acquisition seems motivated by internal animosity among ASEAN states, by the fight against terrorism, or finally by the necessity to replace obsolete equipment. At the same time, China condemns Washington’s initiative, accusing the USA to be unfriendly. Last January China suspended all military information exchange with the White House as retaliation for selling sophisticated weapons to Taiwan.
Moreover, a strong protest has been dispatched against Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s speech at the last ASEAN Foreign Ministers Summit held in Hanoi. Mrs. Clinton called for an international conference to solve sovereignty on the Paracels and Spratleys island. She said it is “in the national interest of the USA”. The 2 small archipelagos in the South China Sea are resource-rich and contended by different states, of which China is the biggest. Beijing has no intention to negotiate with anybody since is convinced the island are within its territorial waters.
To call for an international meeting to solve an internal issue is seen as interference and a matter of concern. Ironically, Clinton’s call was well received in Vietnam. Joint naval exercises also took place along Vietnamese coastlines: it was unimaginable only few years ago. Hanoi is closer than any other states to the Paracels islands. In addition, its border with China only recently has been pacified. Now trade prevails over fire exchange and sabotage.
By contrast, the Philippines, once the staunchest ally of the USA, rejected Clinton’s proposal, advocating an Asian solution to the issue. Arm race and plurality of positions reflect uncertainty about ASEAN’s future. The 550-milion-people Association looks unequal, with different ambitions, incomes, social lives, cultural inheritances. United by a common geography, its 10 States need alliances to progress.
China is the new economic powerhouse, the USA the old military protection. Both are necessary, within the framework of a constant readjustment. ASEAN must so consistently negotiate its destiny, without choosing a definite friend, because to take side with one giant means to be enemy of the other.