… for many reasons, Beijing’s goal to bolster its position in Southeast Asia at Washington’s expense is very likely to fail. First, regional leaders understand very well that one cancelled presidential trip to Southeast Asia doesn’t equal a change in the US’s Asia strategy. Key regional powers such as Malaysia and Indonesia acknowledged Obama’s imperative to stay at home. Instead, Secretary of State John Kerry attended both meetings and delivered the key message Southeast Asian countries wanted to hear: America expects China and its neighbours to peacefully resolve their territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Second, this message exposed China’s Achilles’ heel in Southeast Asia: while ASEAN claimants are eager to talk, Beijing isn’t willing to compromise on its extensive territorial claims in the South China Sea. In Darussalam, China’s Premier Li Keqiang not only reiterated Beijing’s ‘indisputable rights’ within the ‘nine-dash’ line, he also warned countries not directly involved, including Australia and Japan, to stay out of the disputes. So China didn’t make much progress in persuading Southeast Asian countries about its benign intentions. Put simply, its assertive behaviour in the South China Sea has caused an almost intractable trust deficit between Beijing and ASEAN countries. It also provides an avenue for external players such as India and Japan to increase their security role in Southeast Asia.