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Finding Partners In The South China Sea – OpEd

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Despite ongoing distractions in the Middle East, Ukraine, and elsewhere, the U.S. government has continued to make steady progress towards its so-called “Pivot to Asia”, a foreign policy realignment that aims to forge greater security, economic and diplomatic ties between America and countries in the Asia-Pacific region with a view to countering the ambitions of an increasingly expansionist China.

The pivot culminated most recently in the signing of the Sunnylands Declaration, an agreement designed to facilitate increased cooperation between the U.S. and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) group. This unprecedented summit that brought together both ASEAN heads of state and the American president is as much the result of aggressive American diplomacy as is the work of an increasingly aggressive Chinese presence in the South China Sea.

In the Philippines, the country most at risk from Beijing’s expansionistic policy in the South China Sea, the pivot doctrine as well as the wider bilateral cooperation stalled when the country’s Supreme Court decided to investigate whether the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) was constitutional, leaving ties between the two countries languishing. But in January, the court upheld the constitutionality of the EDCA by a vote of 10-4, opening the way for Congress to allocate $66 million for the construction of military facilities in the Philippines.  “EDCA is not constitutionally infirm,” Supreme Court spokesman Theodore Te said at the time. “It remains consistent with existing laws and treaties that it purports to implement.”

Separately, a defense agreement signed between U.S.-allied Japan and the Philippines in Manila at the beginning of March helped boost Obama’s Pivot doctrine by proxy, by highlighting the Philippines’s need for increased assistance to bolster its faltering military modernization program.

Elsewhere, the Obama administration has been working hard to widen cooperation with Malaysia, signing a comprehensive partnership agreement in April 2014, which was expanded last year amid fears jihadi fighters linked to Daesh were gaining a stronger foothold in the country. The increasingly cozy relationship between the two nations was cemented further when Obama became the first U.S. president to visit Malaysia in five decades last November. And only last month, the Malaysian ambassador to the U.S. Dr Awang Adek Hussin described relations between the two countries as “very warm and cordial.” Awang Adek said improved ties with the U.S. would not have been possible 10 years ago, attributing the increasingly close relationship to ongoing U.S. engagement on issues affecting the region.

In a recent report for the Center for a New American Security, Prashanth Parameswaran, associate editor at the Diplomat magazine, noted that Malaysia “continues to adopt a ‘playing it safe’ approach on the South China Sea issue, pursuing a combination of diplomatic, legal, economic, and security initiatives that can secure its interests as a claimant state while being careful not to disrupt its vital bilateral relationship with China.” This approach has led Kuala Lumpur to strengthen ties with another key US ally, Saudi Arabia, by joining the Riyadh-sponsored anti-ISIS coalition in a bid to stem the rise of the Islamic State – Malaysia has been on high alert against potential terrorist attacks ever since the Jakarta attacks in Indonesia earlier in January.

The Obama administration has also attempted to improve relations with Myanmar, gradually lifting sanctions and signing the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) with the formerly army-ruled state, while at the same time keeping in place visa and investment bans against individuals suspected of committing human rights abuses. The Myanmar government has called on the U.S. to lift remaining sanctions in the wake of the country’s elections last November, a request that received backing from U.S. firms looking to do business in the country. In the immediate aftermath of last year’s poll, the Wall Street Journal quoted Peter Kucik, who spent time working on the enforcement of sanctions in Myanmar for the U.S. government, as saying: “Now that the election is… successfully behind us, there will be more bandwidth to refocus on ensuring that sanctions… don’t impede the broader U.S. goals to support economic development, increased U.S. business engagement, and ultimately the Myanmar people.”

Myanmar’s Minister of Information Ye Htut has said he will urge the U.S. to unconditionally lift all remaining sanctions in wake of the elections, but the Myanmar Times quotes a U.S. lawyer familiar with the program as saying he believes this year will not see an end to sanctions, highlighting recent comments from U.S. officials appearing to signal a continuation of the status quo. Regardless of whether sanctions are lifted this year or later, it’s clear that improved relations between the U.S. and Myanmar have helped speed reform in the country.

Having successfully implemented the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement and having expanded security ties with countries in the Asia-Pacific region, the Obama White House will leave behind it a solid foundation. However, the pivot is still in the early phases of institutionalization and many problems are left unaddressed – not least of which finding a common response to China’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea. With less than a year left in Obama’s term, it will be up to the next American president to take the pivot and turn it into a fully-fledged grand strategy.

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Grace Guo

Grace Guo is a Vienna-based researcher, working as a Program Associate at an NGO focused on Asian politics.

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