Advancing US-ASEAN Relations in 2012

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.


India and Syria: A Tough Balancing Act for New Delhi

The 4 February vote on the Syrian crisis at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has led many commentators to declare a ‘watershed’ in Indian foreign policy.

Instead of abstaining — as it has usually done on questions regarding the Arab Spring — India voted in favour of the resolution. This has been interpreted by some as a foreign policy shift to support the West, and by others as a sign of India’s emerging power on the world stage.

But India’s vote at the UNSC is largely consistent with the cautious stance it has maintained throughout the entire Syrian crisis. From the beginning, the Indian position on Syria has focused on three things: first, condemnation of all violence and human rights violations irrespective of who the perpetrators are; second, encouraging a peaceful and inclusive political process for the resolution of the current crisis; and third, ensuring that Syria itself leads the resolution, with the latter taking into account the aspirations of all Syrians and respecting the country’s sovereignty.

India’s first official statement on Syria at the UNSC in April 2011 embodied this balance, highlighting the ramifications of ‘prolonged instability’ in the country, but also drawing attention to the fact that both sides of the conflict have committed acts of violence. When India, Brazil and South Africa visited senior officials in Damascus in August 2011, New Delhi reaffirmed its commitment to Syria’s sovereignty, condemned violence from all sides and encouraged President Assad to end violence and introduce political reforms. This balance continued when India abstained from a UN Human Rights Council vote on Syria later that month, noting that finger-pointing was no substitute for constructive dialogue.

Even as the death toll climbed later in the year and it became clear the Assad regime had no intention of reforming, India abstained during a UNSC resolution in October 2011, resisting substantial Western pressure. In explaining his country’s vote, Hardeep Puri, India’s permanent representative to the UN, said the threat of sanctions did not accommodate New Delhi’s concerns and the resolution did not condemn the violence perpetrated by the Syrian opposition. The October resolution was subsequently vetoed by Russia and China.

Many see India’s decision to vote for the UNSC resolution this February, rather than abstaining, as signalling a dramatic departure from its habitual Syria policy. They cite various reasons, including the West’s increased pressure on New Delhi, the growing death toll in Syria and India’s growing realisation that its energy interests in the Gulf states ultimately matter more. Yet the facts suggest continuity rather than change in India’s position. As Indian officials repeatedly mentioned when explaining their vote, New Delhi only decided to support the resolution after its reservations regarding regime change, sanctions and military intervention were addressed and the resolution’s language was watered down. Far from bowing to Western pressure, India was part of a group of countries working to resist it. In fact, according to some accounts, the resolution was so weak that even Russia considered supporting it until the collapse of last minute talks with the US.

As if to confirm the consistency of the Indian position, Vinay Kumar, India’s acting permanent representative to the UN, reiterated New Delhi’s long-held policy on Syria on 13 February. He expressed concern over the present situation, condemning violence from all sides, and called for a peaceful and inclusive political process led by the Syrian people. Contrary to some who read India’s latest UNSC vote as an abandonment of the Assad regime or an alignment with Western positions on Syria, Kumar noted that India believed ‘the leadership of Syria is a matter for the Syrian people to decide’. India also attended the 70-member ‘Friends of Syria’ conference in Tunis as an observer soon after the UNSC vote.

While there remains a chance that India’s position on Syria will shift in the future, this seems doubtful at present. Much like its silence on other questions regarding the Arab Spring — from Libya to Bahrain to Egypt — India is trying to walk a tightrope and avoid taking bold stances. And while there may be many at home and abroad who wish that New Delhi were more assertive in its foreign policy, they should not be surprised if they continue to be disappointed, or fool themselves into seeing change where none exists.

This article was originally published at the East Asia Forum.



New Piece on the Next Steps for US-Vietnam Relations

I have a new piece out over at World Politics Review looking at some of the key issues that have shaped will shape US-Vietnam relations. I argue that the Washington needs to sustain and balance its engagement with Vietnam and Asia more generally this year even as it is consumed by elections, manage its relationship with China adroitly, and try to make progress on further strengthening economic and trade relations. Hanoi, for its part, needs to sustain internal reforms and address some of Washington’s concerns about human rights in order to increase the ‘ceiling’ on what can be achieved in the relationship. These measures will help both sides elevate the relationship “to the next level” as leaders often declare. Here are the first few paragraphs:

Relations between the United States and Vietnam have progressed rapidly and comprehensively since the normalization of ties in 1995. In just the past few years, the two countries have inked agreements in areas including environmental protection, nuclear energy and health research cooperation. They have also deepened their robust economic relationship, with Vietnam signing on to the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations, and have declared their common interest in freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. Yet if the U.S. and Vietnam wish to take their emerging strategic partnership to the next level, as officials from both sides have indicated, they will need to get past several challenges.

For the United States, the challenge will be sustaining and balancing its engagement with Vietnam and Asia more generally. Vietnam has welcomed the great strides made in relations between the U.S. and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) under the Obama administration, including developments such as the Lower Mekong Initiative and American attendance at the East Asia Summit last year. However, Hanoi worries about the sustainability of the U.S. presence. This is a particular concern this year as the Obama White House moves fully into election mode. The management of noncrisis foreign policy issues may drop off the priority list, while foreign travel may be limited and new and existing agreements shelved. The potential departure of key Asia-focused members of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy team, like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, would only exacerbate this sense of drift, with potentially profound consequences for the regional security environment. …



Does Netanyahu Really Want to Attack Iran?

For all the escalating rhetoric and drama surrounding Israel’s potential attack on Iran, there are still many who doubt the seriousness of such a scenario.

In analyzing the recent meeting between US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Vali Nasr, professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, thinks that most of this is hot air and the the US and Israel are just playing good cop-bad cop with Iran. On the likelihood of an actual attack, Nasr told NewsHour on PBS:

I don’t think it’s likely at all. It’s rhetoric designed to force the U.S.’s hand. The Obama administration actually likes it because it puts pressure on Iran. It’s like good cop-bad cop. It allows Obama to say, ‘you can either deal with me, or you can deal with Israel, which has made very clear that they want to attack you.’ It’s not a given that Netanyahu would attack or not attack, but if they do, they could conceivably look as bad as that Turkish flotilla debacle.

There may be even more reason to question the wisdom of an Israeli attack given the domestic political dynamics there. In a rare look at this dimension a few days ago, Daniel Levy wrote a piece for Foreign Policy, arguing that Netanyahu is a risk-averse politician who does not need to take a gamble on Iran in order to shore up his popularity at home. Here’s Levy:

A tendency characterizing Netanyahu’s long term in office, and a counterintuitive one at that, is the degree to which he has been risk-averse, not only in matters of peace, but also in matters of war. No Operation Cast Leads, Lebanon wars, or Syria Deir ez-Zor attack missions under his watch. In fact, he has no record of military adventurism. What’s more, Netanyahu hardly appears to be in need of a Hail Mary pass, military or otherwise, to salvage his political fortunes. Polls consistently show that he is a shoo-in for reelection. The right-wing block in Israel currently has a hegemonic grip on Israeli politics, something that seems unlikely to change. Netanyahu secured his own continued leadership of the Likud party in Jan. 31’s primary. His primacy on the right faces few challenges from either within the Likud or beyond it. Despite never winning favor with much of the mainstream media, the messy management in his own office, and the challenges of coalition balancing (particularly over issues of religion and state), Netanyahu maintains solid approval ratings with a relatively strong economy and can even now bask in Israel’s lowest unemployment numbers in 32 years.

He goes on about the risk of an attack on Iran, calling it “possibly the biggest threat to Bibi serving a third term” given strong domestic political opposition among former security establishment figures:

Former security establishment figures at the highest levels have mounted an unprecedented campaign warning Israel’s leader and its public of the follies of launching a solo and premature Israeli military action against Iran. Most outspoken has been recently retired Mossad chief Meir Dagan, who has described a strike on Iran as “the stupidest thing I have ever heard.” But he has not been alone. Other former IDF chiefs of staff, as well as Shin Bet and intel leaders, have joined the cautioning chorus. Many are unlikely to shut up if Bibi defies their counsel. And in the public arena, these voices cannot be dismissed as just so many self-serving chickenhawk politicians. The fallout from an attack on Iran is possibly the biggest threat to Bibi serving a third term.

To this we can add some poll figures released last week by Shibley Telhami on whether Israelis support a strike on Iran. Here’s a summary of what Telhami found, though the numbers themselves are fascinating and I’d encourage readers to look at them in greater detail:

They don’t support a strike without U.S. backing, a new poll shows, even though they are not fearful of Washington’s retribution if they go against U.S. advice. They appear less influenced by the rhetoric of U.S. politicians competing for their embrace, and contrary to conventional wisdom, the Obama administration’s reluctance to support a military strike against Iran has apparently not affected their preference for Obama as the next president. In fact, their views seem to partly reflect the White House’s assessment of the consequences of war and the problems created by military action.

Given all this, it is worth at least asking how credible this war of words really is, even if it is impossible to predict exactly what Israel’s actions in the future will be.

Stop the Childish Afghanistan Debate

Following the fallout from the Quran burnings in Afghanistan, the voices calling for America to abandon the country are growing louder. Fareed Zakaria thinks it is time for the US “to get real in Afghanistan” and abandon its nation-building hopes:

As America has discovered in countless places over the past five decades, there are problems with this nation-building approach. First, it is extremely difficult to modernize a country in a few years.Second, even if this were possible, the fundamental characteristics of that society – its ethnicity, religion, and national and geopolitical orientation – persist despite modernization.

The current approach, in his view, also “bets on the success of not one but two large nation-building projects” – creating an effective national government in Kabul and economy in Afghanistan loved by the Afghans, and to alter Pakistan’s basic character.

Zakaria is using a strawman to prove his argument, which I find quite silly and sad. Anyone watching the news, as I assume Zakaria does, would realize that the Obama administration’s modest goal has not been ‘nation-building’ in Afghanistan, but ensuring an Afghan government with the capacity to control a large part of its teritory with little international assistance before the US withdraws. In other words, as I’ve put it before, preventing national collapse rather than promoting nation-building.You can’t nation-build with the paltry number of troops the US has in Afghanistan now, and the administration knows this. Obama himself was reluctant to even give his generals the troop numbers they wanted last year to secure Afghanistan, so I doubt he harbors any illusions about ‘nation-building’, especially now with around 70 percent of Americans opposed to the war.

Instead of quoting administration officials or policy documents, Zakaria quotes a 2010 speech by Newt Gingrich to make a point about what the US goal in Afghanistan is before challenging it. Gingrich goes on about how “flooding the country with highays” and “guaranteeing every Afghan has a cellphone” is the way to succeed. Never mind that Zakaria is quoting the same guy who called Obama’s apology for the Koran burnings “embarrassing” to represent US policy. I’d challenge Zakaria to find just one single recent quote by an administration official along those ‘nation-building’ lines. Obama and his advisers have been saying consistently that they are charting a ‘responsible withdrawal’ in Afghanistan, and that while troops withdrawals will be “conditions-based”, the main objective is to build Afghan capacity to provide for their own security just like in Iraq. Here’s Obama himself a few days ago:

War is a tough business, and never goes in a perfectly good path. But because of the stick-to-it-ness of our teams, I feel confident that we can stay on a path that, by the end of 2014, our troops will be out and will not be in a combat role, and Afghans will have capacity, just as Iraqis, to secure their own country.

That doesn’t sound like nation-building to me. So let’s get away from this childishness and have a serious debate as to what the US role should be, rather than irresponsibly misrepresenting what it is right now.

A more serious argument would be that the Afghan outrage at the Koran-burning means hearts and minds cannot be won, which will doom any US counterinsurgency effort.

But as Michael Gerson over at the Washington Post has noted, the fallout from the Koran burnings may be overstated. He quotes Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution who, with his repeated trips to Afghanistan, is hardly an armchair commentator:

The current crisis, says Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, is “far more than a blip, but less than a catastrophe.” According to O’Hanlon, the United States is consistently more popular in Afghanistan than elsewhere in the Islamic world. Betrayal by Afghan soldiers and officials is disturbing and damaging but not generalized or dramatically growing. Many Afghans fear a hurried U.S. departure far more than they resent America’s presence. And Karzai’s reaction to the Koran incident has been measured, particularly when compared with past tantrums.

Gerson goes on about the modest but often overlooked successes of Obama’s Afghan strategy:

Obama’s Afghan strategy — including a large troop surge and expanded training and mentoring of Afghan forces — is more successful than some credit. In the south — the Taliban homeland — insurgents have been deprived of sanctuaries and weapons caches. Violence in that region was down by a third in 2011, compared with the previous year. About 300,000 Afghan soldiers and police are deployed across the country. More than half of U.S. military forces engage in joint operations with their Afghan counterparts. While conditions in Afghanistan’s north and west have deteriorated the past few years — complicating the work of relief organizations — the overall levels of violence are not severe. The east, in contrast, has serious and growing challenges. Gains in Afghanistan are not as dramatic as those in Iraq circa 2008. But they provide a reasonable hope that security responsibilities can be gradually shifted to Afghan forces by 2014, with American troops playing a supportive (but still substantial) role.

To all this must be added the cost of failure in Afghanistan. As I wrote almost three years ago:

The United States must not forget that the seeds of 9/11 were planted when it decided to disengage from Afghanistan instead of rebuilding it after the US-trained Afghan mujahideen defeated the USSR. Washington’s failure to construct a centrist government transformed Afghanistan into a cradle of Taliban fundamentalism in the mid 1990s and a sanctuary for Al Qaeda thereafter. Neglecting this war-ravaged and battered country once again would not only display an ignorance of history, but an utter disregard for long-term national security.

Of course, there are significant obstacles to achieving the modest goal the administration has set as well. There’s the corrupt and unpopular Karzai government, the less than helpful Pakistan, and the grim structural realities including rugged terrain and a low literacy rate. Obama did not help things when he gave his commanders less troops than he wanted.

But let’s have an honest debate about the pros and cons of the war, instead of listening to those building strawmen.


Making Sense of the North Korea Moratorium

According to the State Department yesterday, North Korea agreed to suspend its uranium enrichment program, nuclear weapons tests and long-range missile launches in return for 240,000 metric tons of food aid from the United States. That represents the first major diplomatic breakthrough between Washington and Pyongyang since 2007.

For those who are excited about potential change in North Korean behavior, it is worth noting that US officials were in fact close to announcing a similar deal before Kim Jong-Il’s death last year, as I’ve previously noted. They were also nearing some sort of agreement after talks late last week in Beijing. So the moratorium should be read more as an evidence of continuity rather than change: a signal that that the new leader Kim Jong-Un is willing to continue the policies of his father at least for now since Pyongyang needs food aid and a peaceful environment for its transition. In fact, the main negotiators on the North Korean side are the same ones that have been at the table for decades. This is what former special envoy to North Korea (and my dean) Stephen Bosworth had to say:

This is what we had been trying to do for the last year…It’s a sign that the North Koreans want to have continuity. … It’s important to keep in mind that this is not one individual acting and that they’ve done this for their own reasons. First, they need the food aid, and I think they probably want a relatively quiet political environment to carry on the transition.

Those hoping for change would also do well to look at the historical record, which is hardly encouraging. North Korea is infamous for reneging on previous promises and pocketing concessions – most famously under the Agreed Framework in the Clinton administration but also several times under the six-party talks during the Bush administration. In fact, experts are all too familiar with the pattern of North Korean behavior: a provocative act followed by a conciliatory gesture that triggers a rush to either aid or negotiations, with the former often lining the pockets of the regime and the latter being subsequently disrupted by a transgression or tantrum of some sort.

At the same time, simply dismissing North Korean overtures offhand now just because of actions in the past doesn’t make much sense when there are few better options that exist. This is particularly true since there may be a chance that North Korea’s new leadership will institute incremental changes that gradually open up the country. That premise may seem farfetched to some, but it may be worth paying a small price to test it. As Victor Cha, the top advisor to the Bush administration on North Korea said:

On one hand, you could say with the food aid that they’re buying the same horse for the third time… On the other hand, it means getting a handle on what has been a runaway nuclear program that’s continued unabated for more than three years. For that, a bit of food isn’t that high of a price.

The wise policy option given this delicate balance is to react cautiously to the announcement, play down expectations, and wait. The Obama administration has done a good job of this so far. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it in her congressional testimony on Wednesday:

On the occasion of Kim Jong Il’s death, I said that it is our hope that the new leadership will choose to guide their nation onto the path of peace by living up to its obligations. Today’s announcement represents a modest first step in the right direction. We, of course, will be watching closely and judging North Korea’s new leaders by their actions.

If North Korea reverts back to its previous brinkmanship, then US policy can always shift back to one of pure containment – cutting off access to financing, preventing proliferation and so on. Such flexibility is important because, as Bosworth likes to say, while Americans are used to thinking about problems as things that must be solved, North Korea is one problem that may need to be managed for some time to come.

US Talks With North Korea: Baby Steps, Not Breakthroughs

US and North Korean officials completed negotiations in Beijing on Friday, ending their third meeting in the last eight months and the first since the death last December of former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, who was succeeded by his son Kim Jong-Un.

Any progress? Here’s Glyn Davies, the US special representative for North Korea policy:

I think the word ‘breakthrough’ goes too far, folks. I wouldn’t want anybody using the word ‘breakthrough’…The talks were serious and substantive…I think we made a little bit of progress…We have been able to illuminate the issues a little bit better, gain a better understanding of their point of view, their rationale and their position.

So, incremental progress in terms of sitting down and talking about key issues, but no real breakthroughs. There were reportedly some discussions on resuming food aid to Pyongyang, which was something that was discussed as part of a deal closed to being forged between the two sides before elder Kim’s death. Apparently the sticking points are still largely what they were before: monitoring of food-aid distribution and the type of aid provided. For instance, the US has placed a greater focus on providing vitamin supplements and high-protein biscuits for malnourished people, but Pyongyang wants food aid to contain more rice and other grains, which Washington is more reluctant to do since it is routinely siphoned off to the regime’s loyal backers in the cities. The New York Times also notes that “both sides had almost reached the goal of suspension of activities at the uranium enrichment plant but narrowly failed to bridge differences”.

Movement on the food aid question could be a critical first step in tackling the relationship’s tougher issues such as North Korea’s nuclear program. The idea would be to get some progress on the disarmament question from Pyongyang to then restart the six-party talks guided by an aid-for-denuclearization agreement reached in September 2005.

What about the near future? North Korea will have to show concrete steps toward suspending its nuclear program before six-party talks can resume. Former special representative to North Korea and my dean Stephen Bosworth thinks that while there is a possibility of talks resuming sometime this year, the fact that we are (believe it or not) seeing either elections or transitions in all members of the six party talks in 2012 – the US, Russia, Japan, South Korea, China and North Korea – means that various parties may not take the necessary strategic risk necessary to make talks productive. Here’s Bosworth:

I think that there is a good possibility that we may see a resumption of talks sometime in 2012. But I certainly wouldn’t bet on it….I think it’s unlikely – but not impossible – that the North Koreans are going to be prepared to take the sort of strategic risk that they would have to take in order to make talks with us productive. Neither do I think that it’s likely in an election year that we’re going to take the sort of public relations and strategic risk that would be required if we are going to make the talks productive. So I hope that we can do more than just manage to maintain stability over the current year, but I’m not all that optimistic.

But as with anything related to North Korea (and I’m sure Dean Bosworth would agree) the future is anyone’s guess.