Monday, June 2, 2014

US-ASEAN Congressional Caucus Proposed

Last week Indonesia proposed establishing a U.S. Congressional caucus devoted to ASEAN, according to the Jakarta Post:

“Only 26 percent of Congress members pay close attention to ASEAN although our region has huge potential for the US economy,” said Indonesian Ambassador to the US, Budibowo Leksono, as quoted by Antara.  “Congress members have an important role in increasing US and ASEAN strategic partnerships, especially in 2015 when the ASEAN Community is established,” he said.

He further said ASEAN was the US’ fourth-largest trading partner after Canada, Mexico and China and that the US was the third-largest trading partner for ASEAN, creating around 560,000 jobs for Americans. “US investments in ASEAN countries are greater than their investments in China, India, Hong Kong, New Zealand, South Korea and Taiwan combined,” Budibowo said.

“More interesting is, within one decade, the amount of investment from ASEAN member countries in the US rose by more than 1,440 percent to US$27.5 billion in 2012 from $1.8 billion in 2001. The amount was bigger than the investments of China, Hong Kong, India, New Zealand and Taiwan combined in the country,” he went on.  Additionally, the ambassador noted that around 47,000 students from ASEAN countries were studying in the US during the 2012-2013 academic year, contributing more than $1.4 billion to the country’s economy.

Other ASEAN member states -- Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam -- have Congressional caucuses made up of legislators (and just as importantly, their staffs) who want to express continuing support for bilateral relations.  Establishing an ASEAN Congressional caucus would be an important step for the ASEAN institutions in the short term and long term.

First, an ASEAN caucus would allow U.S. legislators continued access to ASEAN members without having to go through bilateral channels. Most U.S. politicians may not want to engage Thailand publicly at the moment, because of the military junta’s takeover.  However, engagement through an ASEAN caucus provides political cover for continued dialogue.   An ASEAN caucus would help deal with similar concerns, although perhaps less pressing at the moment, with Myanmar, Cambodia and Brunei (which don’t have their own bilateral caucuses). 

Second, an ASEAN caucus would help the ASEAN institutions improve their public standing in Washington DC.  This is not to be understated; to use a prosaic example, you can buy a NATO or Organization of American States flag in Washington but not an ASEAN flag.  More importantly, U.S. legislative initiatives influence American foreign policy.  A significant portion of donor aid to the ASEAN institutions comes from the U.S. Agency for International Development (funded by the U.S. Congress), and it was the U.S. Congress that pushed through legislation for the appointment of a resident U.S. ambassador devoted to ASEAN.
Finally, an ASEAN caucus is an important step to establishing long-term relationships between ASEAN and the United States on the basis of the three pillars of ASEAN.  Many in the United States support political-security cooperation, particularly on the South China Sea/East Philippine Sea issues. 

However, economic cooperation can also be improved. If an ASEAN-US free trade agreement can ever be achieved, an ASEAN caucus is a necessary initial supporting step, much as the Singapore caucus helped passage of the U.S.-Singapore free trade agreement.  Such an agreement might seem like a distant goal or even fantasy, given the domestic political opposition in some ASEAN members (e.g., Indonesia or the Philippines) and the U.S. to the deep trade and investment liberalizations required by a U.S. free trade agreement.  On the other hand, after 17 years, we Americans are finally getting the APEC travel card this month, so distant objectives often are achieved.  I just hope an ASEAN-US free trade agreement doesn't take as long.