The U.S. must actively compete with the rising influence of China while making sure that areas where the two nations differ do not lead to tensions if it is to successfully carry out its “rebalancing” policy in the Asia-Pacific region, a senior U.S. military official said on Friday.
Speaking during a telephone conference organized by the U.S. State Department’s East Asia and Pacific media hub in Tokyo, Admiral Samuel Locklear, commander for the Asia-Pacific region, said U.S. leverage—including with countries in the 10-member Asean bloc—depends largely on how security matters in the region are negotiated, particularly surrounding territorial disputes.
“As that [competition with China] occurs, and it’s going to occur, we have to manage the competition between a rising power and an already established power, and that can be done. I’m convinced it can be done. But it has to be done in a way that when we have things we don’t agree on, that we don’t lead to miscalculation, and we find a place where our interests converge,” Adm. Locklear said.
“The areas where our interests converge are infinite,” he continued. “Where they diverge…we should be able to have mechanisms to work through them. So, to the degree that Asean now is attempting to work through some of the issues around territorial disputes and a Code of Conduct, I think it is incumbent upon all nations of the world to support the peoples of this area, including China and nations of Asean to encourage them to try and get to a way they can work through their differences without…disrupting security.”
During Cambodia’s chairmanship of the Asean grouping last year, talks on a Code of Conduct—a legally binding document that outlines how territorial disputes in the South China Sea must be resolved—were shut down by the government due to China’s wish to resolve the disputes with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei on a bilateral basis.
But Adm. Locklear said, “A Code of Conduct would go a long way to helping the nations in the region deal with their differences as the governments work out long-term solutions.”
“We’re very much in favor of a Code of Conduct and we would certainly be willing to facilitate that as possible,” he said.
Still, Cambodia’s apparent pro-Beijing position during its Asean chairmanship is unlikely to slow the U.S.’s plans to increase its presence in the country.
U.S. Special Forces have already trained an elite counterterrorism unit in Cambodia and often conduct training exercises here. In November, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the U.S. was entering into a “new area” in its relationship with countries in the Asia Pacific and outlined a plan for more-and larger-military exercises across the region during a meeting with his Asean counterparts in Siem Reap.
“We’re also going to strengthen out commitment to our partners in the region in the multilateral forums such as Asean and the East Asia Summit. We’ll pursue a lasting relationship with China, including a military-military relationship,” Adm. Locklear said.
“We’re hoping to look past those areas where we differ and to focus our relationship on our converging interests such as counter-piracy, counterterrorism, protecting sea lanes of communication, humanitarian and vast relief response, just to name a few.”
But Washington’s interests are starkly different in some areas from its regional partners, particularly on issues related to personal freedoms and rights.
During a visit to the East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh in November, President Barack Obama held a “tense” meeting with Prime Minister Hun Sen in which he raised the issue of freeing political prisoners in the country and made it clear that the U.S. would not recognize July’s national election unless it is contested by opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who is currently in self-imposed exile to avoid an 11-year jail sentence.
“I believe that the U.S. has a very good record of having policies and perspectives and taking a leadership role in encouraging developing nations in first understanding their responsibility to their people, the responsibility of how their government must respond to people who are free,” Adm. Locklear said. “Human rights should be the center focus of all decisions that are made.”