If the future of world politics lies in Asia, as Hillary Clinton wrote last October, then the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will be critical players in shaping America’s Pacific Century.
The U.S. already recognizes this region of more than 600 million people as a core U.S. interest. It straddles strategically important sea lanes, it is collectively the largest destination of U.S. investment in Asia and it represents America’s fourth largest overseas market. While the United States has increased their engagement with ASEAN considerably over the past few years, Washington can do much more to further boost the relationship in the near future.
Recent American administrations have made an even more concerted effort to strengthen this relationship. Beginning under the second term of former president George W. Bush and continuing into the Obama administration, the United States has, among other things, appointed the first ambassador to ASEAN, acceded to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), attended its first East Asia Summit, forged strategic partnerships with Vietnam and Indonesia, deepened military ties with the Philippines, engaged a reforming Burma, and unveiled several initiatives to assist the less developed countries of Southeast Asia. As the U.S. officially pivots its strategic focus to Pacific Asia, 2012 presents an opportunity to boost U.S.-ASEAN relations even further.
First, Washington must sustain the momentum in U.S.-ASEAN relations. This is no easy task. Foreign policy may drop off the priority list as the White House focuses on re-election, limiting the administration’s capacity to conclude sensitive agreements. Bitter partisanship and financial austerity could also serve as further constraints. Clinton and several Asia specialists on Obama’s foreign policy team are leaving government this year, which compounds the problem of following through with fresh initiatives. Mixed signals from Washington will only increase regional uncertainty with profound consequences for U.S. partnerships and the Asia-Pacific security environment more generally.
Second, the United States will need to manage its relationship with China nimbly. Southeast Asian states like the flexibility of maintaining relations with a range of big powers and are particularly sensitive to tensions between those powers that could undermine regional security and prosperity. Having to choose between Washington and Beijing in a confrontation is an especially nightmarish scenario for ASEAN countries, since several of them enjoy strong trade relationships with both but still rely on the United States for their security. During his visit to Washington earlier this year, Singapore’s Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam repeatedly warned that any U.S. attempt to contain China will only alienate Southeast Asian countries; even anti-China rhetoric in media circles, he said, “can create a new and unintended reality for the region.” So the Obama administration must strike a tricky balance between a U.S. presence that secures Southeast Asia, particularly on issues such as the South China Sea, but also avoids rattling Beijing.
Third, Washington should pay equal attention to non-security aspects of U.S.-ASEAN relations. In particular, stronger and more sustained U.S. leadership in trade and investment is needed. The U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which involves nine countries including the U.S., Brunei, Singapore and Vietnam, offers much promise. However, experts doubt the TPP will bring much economic benefit unless one other major economy joins. Japan, an applicant to join, is particularly attractive as the world’s third largest economy. The U.S. executive and legislative branches can also do more to promote new business opportunities in Southeast Asia. In the people-to-people realm, the Obama administration should increase U.S.-ASEAN educational exchanges and streamline inefficient visa security review programs as a high-level U.S.-ASEAN Strategy Commission recommended last year.
Fourth, the U.S. must support ASEAN in its efforts at greater regional integration. The chief concern for the U.S. in this respect will be encouraging the reform process under way in Burma. Washington must gradually coax the regime – one of the world’s most isolated and repressive – back into the international fold and help prepare it for assuming the ASEAN chairmanship in 2014. Furthermore, to help ASEAN reach its ambitious goal of regional economic integration by 2015, the U.S. can indicate its commitment to a U.S.-ASEAN free trade agreement, provide support for the new ASEAN Infrastructure Fund (AIF), and make progress on technical assistance initiatives directed at the less developed ASEAN states in mainland Southeast Asia. The Obama administration must also ensure it keeps up its attendance record in U.S.-ASEAN related summits despite a full plate of other policy issues.
U.S.-ASEAN relations have grown closer and more complex over the last few years at a rapid pace, to the credit of both sides. Washington must now do its part to sustain and nurture an increasingly mature partnership that will be critical to the realization of America’s Pacific Century.
This article was originally published on the Fletcher Forum of World Affairs website here.