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.


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.

The U.S. and East Asian Regionalism

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Leaders at a recent East Asia Summit.

As United States thinks about its future approach to East Asian regionalism, perhaps one of the most important questions is whether or not it should join the East Asia Summit (EAS), and what other options it could pursue beyond this.

I’ve got a new piece out at World Politics Review analyzing a few of these options as they stand now.

I’ve pasted the full article below, but you can also read it here.

The U.S. and the East Asia Summit

Prashanth Parameswaran | 02 Jun 2010

As U.S. President Barack Obama prepares for his visit to Asia in June — one of three potential roundtrips to the region this year — it is worth exploring what Washington’s future policy options are with respect to Asian regionalism.

The alphabet soup of the so-called “regional architecture” includes the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the ASEAN Plus Three (APT), and APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation), to name just a few groupings. The main question now facing the United States is whether to join the East Asia Summit (EAS), a five-year-old body that groups the 10 countries of Southeast Asia as well as China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand.

The impetus for joining is clear. Legally speaking, the United States meets all the criteria necessary for membership, having finally acceded to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) last year. Substantively, participating in Asian summitry demonstrates Washington’s commitment to multilateralism, a symbolic yet significant metric in a region where process is equally important — and sometimes more so — than outcomes. “Half of diplomacy,” as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in her speech on regional architecture earlier this year, “is showing up.”

More tangibly, the United States could also use its membership to energize the grouping or influence regionalism more generally in constructive ways. For instance, Washington might be able to provide leadership in ensuring that the proposed Comprehensive Economic Partnership in East Asia within the EAS is compatible with the Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific within APEC, thereby averting potential overlap or conflict.

Yet there are also compelling arguments against joining the EAS. The other half of diplomacy, as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell politely put it, is about “delivering results” and focusing “increasingly on action,” or “developing the capacity for problem-solving.”

Judged from this prism, the EAS, which has been referred to by some leaders and experts as a “brainstorming session” or “a dinner followed by 16 speeches,” looks more like a discussion forum compared to the APT. In the latter grouping, Southeast Asian nations along with Japan, China and South Korea have achieved more concrete results, including establishing a joint fund — the Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateralization Agreement — to guard against future financial crises.

Some countries have acknowledged that the EAS “could make a significant contribution to . . . establishing an East Asian Community,” and it is clear that there is room for growth. But Washington may not want to sign off on a grouping that has yet to demonstrate its capacity for producing results.

Showing up is also easier said than done. Take Obama’s schedule for the rest of 2010. As of now, he already has three planned trips to Asia: a June trip to Indonesia, Guam and Australia (which has already been postponed three times due to domestic imperatives), a series of ASEAN leaders’ meetings in Hanoi in late-October (including the Fifth EAS and the Second U.S.-ASEAN Summit), and visits to South Korea and Japan in November for the Fifth G-20 Summit and the 18th APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting respectively. Yet there is deep skepticism over whether the president’s political advisers will let the EAS summit take precedence over domestic campaigning come October, just weeks before critical mid-term elections that his party could lose.

While the Obama administration could push for the U.S.-ASEAN Summit to be held in Honolulu or for it to be postponed so it coincides with his November visit, rescheduling the EAS is much harder to do, since it also requires agreement by six other non-Southeast Asian members, including China. There are ongoing discussions about this, but the outcome remains unclear. Furthermore, beyond 2010, in order for the U.S. to attend regularly as a member in the future, EAS nations would likely have to time meetings with the APEC or G-20 summits, and perhaps even consider holding them outside of Southeast Asia.

Alternatively, as Stanford University’s Donald K. Emmerson has suggested (.pdf), the United States could choose to “ease into” the EAS by first sending the vice president or secretary of state to Vietnam, the summit’s host in 2010. That would express U.S. support for regionalism while also affording it the opportunity to evaluate the grouping’s productivity before determining if it is worth pursuing membership. When Assistant Secretary Campbell spoke at the Project 2049 Institute in Washington last year, he said (.pdf) that Washington would “hang back a little bit” and see how both existing institutions and proposed initiatives — like Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s Asia Pacific community and Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s East Asia Community — evolve before stating its own preferences.

As U.S. policymakers mull these various options, it is worth noting that the decision about whether or not to join the EAS is hardly an exclusively American one. ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan hinted earlier this year in a speech at the Asia Society that Washington had to adapt to existing arrangements because “the landscape has changed” in the region. ASEAN leaders themselves are also currently weighing other options beyond just expanding the EAS to include the United States. These include a separate ASEAN+8 grouping — all current EAS members plus the U.S. and Russia — that would meet every few years. ASEAN+8, some have argued, would take into account the U.S. president’s scheduling problems by convening only every few years — as opposed to the annual EAS summits — and back-to-back with the APEC Leaders’ Meeting when it is hosted in the region.

In Tokyo last year, Obama insisted that the United States “expects to participate fully in appropriate organizations as they are established and evolve.” But in order to do so, his administration must first consult with Asian nations and determine how much it wants to actually commit to multilateralism in Asia, including the EAS.

Prashanth Parameswaran is a research assistant at the Project 2049 Institute, a Washington D.C.-based think tank that covers Asian security issues.

Photo: East Asia Forum


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