Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Upgrading the US-ASEAN Relationship

While attending the East Asian Summit this weekend in Kuala Lumpur, U.S. President Barack Obama invited ASEAN leaders to attend a special summit in the United States next year.  This is not the first time a U.S. President has made such an invitation, but (hopefully) it seems that the factors that waylaid the last such proposal won’t do the same to this one.  The proposed 2016 summit also demonstrates the usefulness of addressing U.S. relations with Southeast Asian countries within the ASEAN context, rather than on a bilateral basis, something that should be institutionalized and built upon.

The invitation comes on the heels of an “upgrading” of U.S.-ASEAN relations to a “strategic” level, with a 5 year plan for cooperation on political-security, economic and socio-cultural issues.

Political-security issues include maritime issues (e.g. the South China Sea), terrorism, trafficking in persons and refugees.

Economic issues include the ASEAN Single Window, trade facilitation, investment, support for SMEs, as well as the ASEAN-United States Expanded Economic Engagement (E3) Initiatives (which hopefully can be beefed up to help ASEAN members like Thailand, Philippines and Indonesia build capacity to join the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), now that we actually know what would be required by the TPP).

Socio-cultural issues include human rights, climate change, youth and women’s programs, among others.

Although many of these programs already exist, the “upgrade” institutionalizes these aspects of the relationship.  Regularizing the special summit proposed for 2016 would also help with the “upgrade,” expanding beyond the current U.S.-ASEAN summit that is held on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit. 

This is not a new idea. Then-U.S. President George W. Bush proposed a similar U.S.-ASEAN summit to be held at his Crawford ranch. However, that proposal faded away mainly due to objections to the potential participation of the Myanmar military regime.  The Bush administration thus was denied its opportunity to conduct its own “upgrade.” 

Times and sensitivities have changed.  Now that Myanmar appears set to continue its political and economic reform, its participation is much less of an issue.  Furthermore, participation in the 2016 special summit would be an incentive for Aung San Suu Kyi’s victorious party and the military to reach agreement on an acceptable president for Myanmar. 

Moreover, engaging ASEAN as a group allows the United States to continue relations with countries which would be more problematic on a bilateral basis, such as Thailand and its current military government.  For example, the presence of the Thai prime minister at the U.S.-ASEAN summit did not cause any difficulties.  In fact, the U.S. has indicated that Thailand’s military government would not prevent Thailand from joining the TPP.  This reflects the continued balancing between geopolitical concerns and aspirations for the region.

In any event, institutionalizing the “upgrade” in U.S.-ASEAN ties is both welcome and necessary, given the upcoming 2016 elections.  Regardless of who the next U.S. President is after November 2016, he or she will have a better set of tools to work with Southeast Asia.

NB: Since Thanksgiving is celebrated this Thursday in America, here is a link to a Straits Times op-ed I wrote on this very unique holiday.