The Asianist

Balanced and fact-based analysis of Asian affairs

Posts Tagged ‘us asean relations

Will the U.S. Pivot to Asia Sustain Through 2013?

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CSIS Asia hand Mike Green has his doubts about whether President Barack Obama can sustain the U.S. pivot or rebalance to Asia unveiled during his first term:

Given that 2013 could be the year of reckoning on Iran’s nuclear program, not to mention the likely denouement for Syria, John Kerry will require real strategic discipline to keep a focus on Asia. The administration has also had some difficulty managing the inherent tension between engaging China and maintaining a favorable balance of power in the region.  Allies such as Japan and the Philippines worry that in the second term the administration may tilt back towards an emphasis on reassuring, rather than dissuading, Beijing.  That would be unfortunate, since lack of consistency on that front hurt the administration in the first term with both the allies and Beijing.

Engagement of ASEAN is a noted success for this administration, but the terrain could become tougher in the years ahead, given renewed ethnic conflict in Burma, leadership transitions in Indonesia, and domestic political problems in Vietnam, Malaysia and elsewhere. A strong U.S. Trade Representative empowered to move forward on the Trans-Pacific Partnership would certainly help the sustainability of the Pivot, particularly with ASEAN.  Finally, all eyes will be on the defense budget. A carefully managed cut to defense spending that allows reprogramming for naval and air force capabilities in the Pacific is necessary.  Sequestration that throws the defense establishment into chaos would damage the region’s image of American strategic competence.

I have highlighted similar concerns in several recent pieces, including here.

Advancing US-ASEAN Relations in 2012

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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.

Picture: http://www.bt.com.bn

Evaluating Obama’s Pacific Presidency

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When Hawaii−born U.S. President Barack Obama famously declared himself America’s first “Pacific President” in a speech in Tokyo two years ago, the audience was charmed by his references to green−tea ice cream, childhood visits to Japan and boyhood years in Indonesia.

They were probably less impressed by America’s Asia policy during his first year in office. Mr. Obama showed up to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) with virtually no trade policy, acquiesced to Beijing unnecessarily on several issues and had a rocky start with U.S. allies and friends like Japan, India and Taiwan. Weeks before America’s new president was about to leave for his first official Asia trip, Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s patriarch and one of Asia’s leading strategic thinkers, warned that the United States risked losing global leadership if it did not remain engaged in Asia to balance a rising China.

Since then, Mr. Obama has tried to make amends by buttressing ties with countries generally aligned with the United States instead of trying to change the interests of those who are not. He has backed Southeast Asian countries against Chinese bullying in the South China Sea, enhanced America’s checkered commitment to regional multilateral forums and deepened relations with allies and strategic partners like Indonesia, South Korea and Vietnam. Meanwhile, flickers of hope have appeared in U.S. engagement efforts with North Korea and Myanmar. In recent months, his administration has indicated that despite defense cuts and economic challenges at home, the United States remains committed to lead in the Asia−Pacific.

Mr. Obama made more waves in his latest voyage across the Pacific. Hosting the APEC summit in Hawaii, he pushed his regional trade agreement, the Trans−Pacific Partnership, which advances a platinum Free Trade Agreement standard that addresses critical commercial rules and regulations. In Australia, he secured greater U.S. access to Australian bases, providing a staging point for the American military in the Indian Ocean and a sanctuary beyond the striking range of China’s growing arsenal of long−range missiles.

Equally important was what Mr. Obama did not do. He did not fan Chinese fears of containment and Southeast Asian fears of superpower rivalry by suggesting that these overtures were aimed at Beijing. In fact, he went out of his way to say directly that “the notion that we’re looking to exclude China is mistaken,” and that Beijing was an important part of setting principles for all actors to follow in the region, even if it would have to realign its policies to pursue future common goals. That struck a good balance between advancing a U.S. vision in Asia and leaving room for conditional Chinese involvement. Chinese officials, of course, still questioned whether American initiatives were “appropriate,” forgetting the fact that it was Beijing’s own missteps that had opened the door to a stronger U.S. presence in the region.

He also did not attempt to dominate the agenda at America’s first East Asian Summit (EAS) as some countries had feared. Instead, he backed other Asian nations’ insistence on a multilateral resolution of conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea after they had all spoken at a smaller EAS session on Saturday. Though Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was put on the defensive, he addressed the concerns in a constructive way that was a far cry from Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi’s notorious tantrum at the ASEAN Regional Forum in 2010. That was a relief to Asian countries, who wanted to make their worries heard without incurring Beijing’s wrath.

Mr. Obama still has a year in office before presidential elections next year, during which much can happen. But as he returns from his weeklong swing around the Pacific Rim, he certainly looks more the part of a Pacific President than he did two years ago.

This article was originally published in the Tufts Daily.

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