Every fall the United States has its annual “Asian” diplomatic season, usually centered around the visit of the U.S. president to the APEC, and now ASEAN, summits, starting with the (mostly) American holiday of Halloween on October 31 and ending with the American Thanksgiving holiday on the fourth Thursday of November. This year, due to combined effect of the U.S. presidential election heating up after the Republican party officially nominated Governor Mitt Romney (along with Monday’s U.S. Labor Day holiday) and this week’s first U.S.-ASEAN business summit, it seems as if the “American” season has started in ASEAN a bit earlier than usual.
Last year marked the renewed emphasis by the U.S. government on Asia, and to a large extent, ASEAN. Whether this is a “pivot” or “renewed focus” depends on your point of view and is debatable, but the emphasis is clear. Regardless of whether President Obama or Governor Romney wins the November 6 election, Asia should remain a top priority for the United States.
Supporting a stronger ASEAN should be at the core of U.S. policy in the region. By a “stronger ASEAN,” I refer both to the individual ASEAN member states and the ASEAN institutions themselves. The United States has provided peace and security for the region throughout the regional grouping’s existence. The ASEAN member states recognize this, with former adversaries (such as Vietnam) and long standing allies (e.g., Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand) recognizing the need to have a stabilizing U.S. presence, particularly with regard to the South China Sea issues.
However, I believe that the fundamental interests of United States in the region – peace with economic and political development, on a sustainable basis – is also served by having strong ASEAN institutions. The ASEAN Charter’s ostensible purpose, to formalize the internal operations of ASEAN, is consistent with developing rule of law and good governance for the region. Full implementation of the ASEAN Economic Community and its constituent agreements (ATIGA, ACIA and AFAS) will promote both the establishment of the single production base and single market, which will benefit all of the citizens of ASEAN. Stronger ASEAN institutions will also mean that ASEAN will be better able to deal with environmental, health and other human development issues that can only be addressed on a regional basis. Finally, stronger ASEAN institutions can also promote peace and stability in the region.
In other words, what is good for the ASEAN institutions is also good for the United States, as well as good for any nation that supports long term peace and stability for the region. The Obama administration has understood this, for the most part, and has actively engaged ASEAN institutions on all of these issues.
Yet the United States could do better. The American re-emphasis on Asia and ASEAN is primarily depicted in diplomatic and military terms, with less attention paid to American support for ASEAN economic integration and socio-cultural integration. In other words, it often appears that the United States is engaged only with the political-security pillar of ASEAN, and not the other pillars, the economic and socio-cultural pillars.
Let me address the latter. American influence on the socio-cultural pillar is both understated and less reported. The United States, through the U.S. Mission to ASEAN, USAID and other agencies has promoted the socio-cultural pillar with aid and outreach efforts. These efforts do not attract the headlines that the political-security efforts do, but they are still significant. The American influence on socio-cultural matters in ASEAN must also include the vast American media industry, which has now expanded to include social media and the Internet. By and large, its impact on ASEAN has been beneficial and conducive to human development.
Where I feel the United States has not fully engaged ASEAN is in the economic pillar. The United States does provide support to the ASEAN Economic Community, such as through the USAID project to promote the ASEAN Single Window project. To use an other example, in the last few years the number of trade actions against ASEAN countries has decreased, with some cases terminated.
But the main U.S. trade initiative in ASEAN, the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), only involves four ASEAN members (Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam). The sheer depth and breadth of the TPP talks make it impractical both for some ASEAN members to join and for the talks to end anytime soon. The TPP will result in solid, long-term benefits for the ASEAN -4 involved, but where does that leave the other ASEAN members in the meantime?
Meanwhile, ASEAN itself is pushing forward with its Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) program with its other trading partners. Some TPP issues will be covered in the RCEP talks, but in all likelihood most won’t. The RCEP and the TPP are not incompatible, but if the RCEP takes off, the U.S. risks being left behind as India, China, Korea, Japan and Australia-New Zealand build upon their existing FTAs with ASEAN. Even the EU is thinking about an eventual restart of its FTA talks with ASEAN, if Myanmar really continues on its path of reform.
The Obama administration relies on the TPP talks because that currently is the only FTA tool it has now. This is largely the result of U.S. domestic politics that view trade agreements negatively, such that the Obama administration has been negotiating the TPP without full trade promotion negotiation authorization from the U.S. Congress.
But again, we could do better, and by “we” I am referring to both sides of the political debate in the United States. We should give the next President full trade promotion authority. We should provide ASEAN an economic program that goes beyond GSP and beyond TIFA, yet without undermining the TPP talks. The EU has such “halfway houses” in its own trade agreements, so maybe we should do the same. Furthermore, we should promote political and economic reform in Myanmar so that it becomes irreversible. A normal trade relationship with Myanmar, which is a WTO member, will eliminate a major obstacle to the United States having deeper and broader economic ties with all of ASEAN.
With progress in the TPP, in Myanmar and in U.S. domestic politics, perhaps we could also start talking about a U.S.-ASEAN FTA which would cover some or all of the areas covered by the TPP. The scope of coverage would depend on what could be agreed upon with ASEAN members. Unless we start talking with ASEAN about this possibility, it will never happen.
In sum, America needs to engage all three pillars of ASEAN. Our efforts with the political-security pillar are overexposed and our efforts with the socio-cultural pillar are underexposed, but our efforts with the economic pillar need augmenting. I hope that the next president will demonstrate the leadership needed to correct this, and to show that the United States strongly supports ASEAN’s efforts in all aspects of its regional integration.