By Ernest Z. Bower, Senior Adviser & Director, CSIS Southeast Asia Program
US President Barack Obama will host eight of the ten leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)[i] in New York on Friday, September 24, 2010 at the 2nd US ASEAN Summit. The meeting underlines renewed American policy energy being invested in Southeast Asia. Headlines from the discussion should focus on three areas:
1. Security alignment including a restatement of a common position on the South China Sea;
2. Economic growth and trade – particularly ASEAN’s leaders seeking an update from the President on the health of the US economy and a read on whether the mid-term US Congressional elections might be an inflection point after which the US can return to a proactive posture on trade; and
3. Burma – specifically exploring a way forward on how the US and ASEAN can encourage Burma’s leaders to introduce political space in the November elections or beyond.
The fact the meeting is taking place in September in the United States is important in that it institutionalizes renewed US engagement in ASEAN ahead of key steps forward in the creating of regional security and trade architecture in Asia.
On the other hand, the fact that the Summit is taking place in New York not Washington and without the leader of ASEAN’s largest country and economy, Indonesia, underlines the fact that while policy intent is clearly substantive engagement, there is still much work to be done to align the US and ASEAN.
Despite the best intentions of the principles, the meeting will certainly be viewed through the prism of perceived increased tension between China and its Asian neighbors particularly related to disputed maritime territories.
Here are some Critical Questions about the Summit and what we can expect:
Q 1 > Who, where & when – who is meeting and what is the agenda?
A 1 > President Obama will host the Summit over lunch at a famous hotel in Manhattan in New York City from 12 noon to 2:30 PM on Friday, September 24, 2010. Eight of the ten ASEAN leaders are confirmed to join him except for President Susilio Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia and Prime Minister Thein Sein of Burma. ASEAN Secretary General Dr. Surin Pitsuwan will also join the meeting. The only surprise is Yudhoyono’s absence and that is significant (see below). The Burmese were not expected to send their head of state due to poor relations with the United States and the sanctions regime currently in place. President Yudhoyono will be represented by Indonesia’s Vice President Boediono and Prime Minister Thein Sein will be represented by Burma’s Foreign Minister U Nyan Win. The leaders will be accompanied in most cases by their ministers of foreign affairs, ambassadors to the United States and or the United Nations, and other senior officials.
Q2 > Why isn’t President Yudhoyono attending and what are the implications of his absence?
A2 > President Yudhuyono notified the White House that he could not accept President Obama’s invitation to come to New York due to domestic issues that need to be attended in Jakarta. Insiders confirm that Yudhoyono decided he could not come to New York due to a confluence of issues including the fact that President Obama has had to postpone planned travel to Indonesia three times since taking office and the short notice given by the White House (not quite a month in advance of the meeting). Had the Summit been scheduled in Washington, DC – America’s capital – and in early October so Yudhoyono and the other ASEAN leaders might have been able to come on either side of their long planned visit to Brussels for the Asia Europe Summit, the Indonesian leader would probably have come.
Yudhoyono’s absence sends a strong signal that although the US ASEAN relationship is moving in the right direction, there is work still to be done to improve alignment. Indonesia is ASEAN’s largest country and has the largest economy, both more than twice as large as the next member. It is also ASEAN’s incoming Chairman for 2011. It is likely that the US and ASEAN will get back on track next year when Indonesia hosts the 3rd US ASEAN Summit, and after President Obama finally is able to make his long-awaited visit to Indonesia. There are quiet plans for him to visit Jakarta during his Asia trip after US mid-term elections in November. That trip would include India, Indonesia, Korea for the G-20 Summit and Japan for the APEC Leaders Summit. In sum, Yudhoyono’s absence doesn’t fully diminish the importance of the meeting in New York on Friday, but it lays down the marker that the US ASEAN relationship is trending well, but remains a work in progress. I explore the gap between the US policy intentions toward ASEAN and the realities of domestic politics revealed by Yudhoyono’s absence in the US on the CSIS Asia policy blog at http://cogitasia.com/2010/09/08/us-asean-summit-in-new-york-gut-check-time/
Q3> What is the on the security agenda and will the South China Sea be a focus?
A3 > The United States and ASEAN are working with other countries including Australia, China, India, Japan, Korea, New Zealand and Russia to create new regional security architecture in Asia. To this end, the US and Russia will be invited to join the East Asia Summit (EAS) this October during the EAS meeting in Hanoi. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will represent the United States at this meeting and accept the invitation. The US will then ideally be represented by President Obama at the next EAS hosted by Indonesia in 2011 (it is likely that the US ASEAN Summit will be held in proximity). As part of its calculus in deciding to join the EAS, the US recognized that it must strengthen its security and political ties with ASEAN and invest in supporting ASEAN’s self defined goals to firm its foundation through the economic, political and socio-economic integration as outlined in the ASEAN Charter. To this end, the US has been moving to normalize military ties with Indonesia and enhancing military relations with Vietnam as well as committing to join the ASEAN Defense Minister Meeting + 8 (which includes the same countries listed above who are/will be members of the EAS).
In this context, one of the existential challenges for Asia is to create structures and use diplomacy to encourage China’s peaceful rise as a major world power. The South China Sea represents a major challenge in this process. China has been very effective in its “charm offensive” begun during the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990’s – writing a script of an engaged and committed neighbor promising economic dynamism through expanded trade and investment and regional economic integration. However, China’s geopolitical interests are the other side of that coin. China’s definition of its “indisputable sovereignty” over the South China Sea in response to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s reiteration of long-standing US goals for maritime dispute resolution and freedom of navigation in the area based on international law and a multilateral approach has uncovered atavistic anxieties about China’s intentions among the Southeast Asian countries. Therefore, ASEAN has welcomed a strong US voice on security concerns in the South China Sea and this has come at a time, ahead of a the Chinese political cycle which will identify the country’s next generation of leaders in 2012, of heightened nationalism in China.
Nether the US nor ASEAN want to provoke Chinese nationalists, but both recognize the importance of being firm and sustaining a commitment to a multilateral approach to dispute resolution. Therefore, it is likely that the Summit in New York will result in a Joint Statement that addresses the issue by reiterating the intent and direction of Secretary Clinton’s remarks at the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in Hanoi with a tone of provocation or focus on China.
Q 4 > How about economic growth and trade?
A 4 > ASEAN is concerned about thehealth and direction of the US economy and hopes President Obama can assure them that the recovery is underway and that he will be able to move the US toward a more proactive posture on trade after the US mid-term elections in November. These issues are fundamentally important to ASEAN because the US is its largest overseas market (particularly when you factor in the fact that many ASEAN exports go through China as part of a supply chain that ends up with products delivered to the United States) and the US remains one of the top and qualitatively most valuable sources of investment and technology for the region. ASEAN is collectively the most trade dependent formal grouping of nations in the world with trade accounting for nearly 100 percent of aggregate gross domestic product. So if trade stagnates, ASEAN is the global canary in the coal mine and its suffers first and most significantly.
ASEAN will be watching the US Korea Free Trade Agreement closely as the benchmark indicator for whether President Obama will use the political chits necessary to kick start trade and make the case to Americans that long term recovery is dependent on US engagement in ASEAN, Asia and the world. ASEAN is America’s fourth largest overseas market and one that promises high level growth for the coming years. ASEAN wants to know if the mid-term elections will be an inflection point for the US stance on global trade. Read more on the disconnect between policy and politics on trade with ASEAN in cogitASIA here http://cogitasia.com/2010/09/20/making-the-case-to-americans-asean-jobs/.
Q 5 > What about Burma?
A5 > With Burmese elections coming up on November 7, Burma is sure to be high on the agenda – at least for the Americans. While ASEAN would prefer not to have to carry the weight of Burma’s cloistered and intransigent military junta, it recognizes that having made the commitment to bring Burma into its membership it must work with the US and others to try to encourage the creation of political space there. The Obama Administration deserves credit for its courage and foresight in espousing an engagement strategy toward Burma that allowed it to reengage with ASEAN and hold meetings such as this Summit. While the engagement has not produced results in Burma, the US has changed its paradigm with ASEAN. The Administration can and likely will tighten sanctions on Burma by focusing on its leaders, their families and companies they are associated with – measure outlined in the Lantos Act. ASEAN needs to do its part and increase its normative focus on Burma to pressure the regime to create more political openness to it can truly engage in the core elements of integration defined in the ASEAN Charter. If ASEAN begins to focus on Burma, pressure may increase on China and India to refocus current mercantilist and military policies that enable the hard-line domestic political stance of the junta and play a role as responsible stakeholders in encouraging positive change in the country.
Q 6 > What next?
A6 > ASEAN hopes President Obama will announce his candidate to the first US Ambassador to ASEAN to be resident in Jakarta? A candidate’s name is reportedly pending review and due diligence though it is not likely that name can be announced on Friday. Additionally, the US and ASEAN are expecting to name an Eminent Person Group (EPG) to provide guidance and leadership for the relationship. These names have also not been announced yet.
After the New York Summit, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be in visiting Hanoi for the EAS and in October and Secretary of Defense Gates will visit Vietnam for the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting + 8 (ADMM + 8). President Obama is planning to visit Indonesia in November as mentioned above.
[i] ASEAN members include Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar (Burma), the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.