Sunday, April 23, 2017

VP Mike Pence Reaffirms U.S.-ASEAN Ties

This week U.S. Vice President Mike Pence visited the ASEAN Secretariat, becoming the highest-ranking U.S. official to have visited ASEAN headquarters.   Pictured below is Vice President Pence meeting with ASEAN Secretary-General Le Luong Minh.

Vice President Pence also met with the permanent representatives of the ASEAN member states and members of the Young Southeast Asia Leaders Initiative, a U.S.-sponsored people-to-people initiative.

The Pence visit should be viewed as a positive diplomatic development.

First, the Trump administration’s gesture of engaging with ASEAN as an institution should be much appreciated by ASEAN.  President Obama visited Indonesia twice but never made an appearance at the ASEAN Secretariat.

Second, Vice President Pence announced that in November President Trump would attend both the APEC Summit in Vietnam and the East Asia Summit (EAS) in Manila.  President Trump’s participation in both meetings was not a given; President Obama missed 2 APEC summits and 3 EAS meetings during his presidency. 

Third, when combined with the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ meeting scheduled for May 4 with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, these moves signal renewed attention to Southeast Asia as a region.

For the United States, a little goes a long way in ASEAN.  Moves such as the Pence visit matter in the region’s diplomatic circles; previous U.S. absences from Asian regional meetings such as APEC and EAS were frequently criticized.  Moreover, U.S. support of ASEAN economic integration initiatives such as the ASEAN Single Window promises a big return for a small investment.  A fully functioning ASEAN Economic Community – one that operates both as a single market and a single production base – represents a great opportunity for American business.

Thus, the Pence visit and its accompanying initiatives are a welcome signal that America’s relationship with ASEAN remains a vital part of U.S. foreign policy.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

AEC 2025 Consolidated Strategic Action Plan

This week ASEAN published the “AEC 2025 Consolidated Strategic Action Plan (CSAP).” The plan lays out both the specific steps associated with implementing the Asean Economic Community (AEC) 2025 Blueprint, along with the anticipated timeframe. 

ASEAN stated that the CSAP “allows for more structured tracking and reporting of the implementation progress of the AEC Blueprint 2025. The AEC 2025 CSAP also facilitates stakeholder feedback to ASEAN economic integration priorities in the succeeding years, as it will be reviewed and updated periodically over the 10-year period.”

The CSAP is indeed a positive step forward, as the AEC Blueprint 2025 was necessarily aspirational in nature.   The CSAP is more practical and has more specified tasks, although much of the CSAP is aspirational as well.

Yet the CSAP does not indicate how the “tracking and reporting of the implementation progress” will be done.  ASEAN has only done two AEC Scorecards, and the most recent scoring, which was not in the form of a scorecard, was limited only to a review of “key deliverables” for 2015.  Since that time, there has been no detailed reporting, on a country-specific and program-specific basis, provided by ASEAN. Hopefully the CSAP will allow for this in the future, as the lack of monitoring and compliance mechanisms is a deficiency in ASEAN’s institutional structure.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

How Does Trump's America View ASEAN?

How does America view ASEAN in the new Trump era?  After two weeks, there is one big news item and some smaller ones.

First, the big talking point is the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea dispute.  Comments by Trump administration figures regarding the maritime dispute have been much discussed in the media, particularly in the U.S.-China context.  Yet the comments go beyond that. They remind all players in the region that the dispute is an international dispute with multiple parties involved, which cannot be resolved on a bilateral basis only between China and the Philippines, for example.  If the new U.S. administration can maintain the narrative on this basis, and avoid the on-the-ground escalations with China which have plagued previous new U.S. administrations in their early days (e.g., Taiwan in the Clinton administration or the Hainan island incident in the Bush 43 administration), so much the better for a peaceful management of the situation.

Second, less publicized was last week’s formation of a bipartisan ASEAN caucus in the U.S. Congress.  This comes after more than two years of effort in Washington, and is a positive development. As I discussed in a previous post, perhaps the biggest gain is the creation of another link with ASEAN countries for whom bilateral relations are strained at the moment, such as the Philippines. 

Third, a recent poll by YouGov published in the New York Times illustrates that country’s fall in reputation in the U.S. since 2014.  Polls taken in 2014 and 2017 surveyed Americans’ perceptions of other countries as allies or enemies of the United States, further breaking down perceptions based on party preferences; I post some selected data here (green shading means positive, red shading means negative):

This poll should be viewed as an indication of both familiarity and popularity.  The former explains why European countries are the highest ranked, given that most Americans originated in Europe, and Europe is closer geographically.  The latter is affected by historical memory; Afghanistan, Iraq, Russia and Pakistan fall near the bottom of the rankings, and North Korea is consistently ranked as the worst enemy.

For ASEAN countries, the poll shows mixed results.  The Philippines went from being the highest ranked Asian country in 2014 (9th) to falling to 41st place in 2017.  This reflects the constant negative media coverage of the Duterte administration since it came to power.  On the other hand, this ranking is consistent with rankings for the other ASEAN countries and is still higher than the other seven ranked members (the poll itself is distorted by not including Brunei and Singapore, although it did include sparsely-populated Greenland, which was ranked 10th in 2014 and 23rd in 2017!).

For the other ASEAN countries, the polls show their relative lack of impression on the American public. The rankings show relatively little movement from 2014 to 2017, which was the case for most Asian countries (the above chart shows Japan, South Korea, China and North Korea for reference).  Furthermore, it is hard to discern the links between favorability and recent developments in the region.  For example, Myanmar went through a transition to a democratic government led by the popular Aung San Suu Kyi, yet the poll says that it fell in rankings from 102nd in 2014 to 117th in 2017, and ranked lower than Cambodia.    Vietnam, which has a large diaspora in the U.S., ranked lower than Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia, which do not, probably because of lingering sentiments from the Vietnam War (which ended more than 40 years ago).

The foregoing indicates that ASEAN members will need to be resourceful in the coming years, given their diplomatic and political situations.  The ASEAN congressional caucus is a useful forum for ASEAN members, but other tools and means should be pursued.   ASEAN members need to expand American perceptions of ASEAN beyond the South China Sea and media reports, and increase economic and cultural ties. For example, the Trump administration has signaled that it may pursue bilateral free trade agreements with Malaysia and Thailand. This opportunity comes because of the demise of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), and should be pursued by all sides.

In other words, ASEAN faces a significantly different relationship with the United States. Rather than simply throwing up their collective hands in frustration (or worse) its members need to engage and work with the United States to build upon that relationship.