In late September or early October, President Obama will take the historic opportunity of hosting the first US ASEAN Summit on American soil. The Summit will be the second of its kind following the inaugural meeting held in Singapore last November. There are two options for venue being considered now in the White House: New York, on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) or Washington, DC – the American capital. There is only one correct answer to this foreign policy test: Washington, DC.
While the policy teams at State, National Security Council, the Pentagon, Commerce and USTR will understand immediately the core importance of ASEAN, political leaders may not have connected the dots yet. ASEAN is vitally important to the United States. It is home to 10 countries including two US allies (Philippines and Thailand), anchored by Indonesia – a G-20 member and next chair of ASEAN, 620 million people, a $1.5 trillion GDP, important strategic and commercial sea lanes and navigational routes and is our 4th largest market for American exports. Not only that, but the US as nearly three times the investment in ASEAN as it does in China and nearly 10 times as much as in India. There is no way the United States can double exports without hard core focus on a trade policy and trade enabling initiatives by the US Export Import Bank, OPIC, Trade Development Agency, Commerce and FCS and others in this region. Finally, ASEAN will be the fulcrum of new trade and security architecture in the Asia Pacific for this century. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been clear about the importance of “ASEAN centrality” in these new structures that will be the foundation of US national security and economic prosperity for the coming decades.
The invitation may also help balance Beijing’s charm offensive toward ASEAN, a region it views as defined by a type of nouveau Monroe Doctrine. ASEAN does not want to be dominated by any country or large power including the US, China or India. It wants balance, and that should be an interest shared by a enduring US strategy for engagement in Asia. Balance is key to avoiding conflicts and helping the regional giants like China and India set onto the regional stage in a peaceful and productive manner. A meeting in Washington backs up American commitment to supporting such balance and transparency in areas that might otherwise become flashpoints for security concerns such as the South China Sea.
There wouldn’t even be much debate about this if the Administration truly had a strategy for Southeast Asia. The 2nd US ASEAN Summit needs to be held in Washington, DC. When inviting ten foreign leaders from a strategically vital region to meet the President of the United States, symbolism and form are vitally important. The Washington choice sends the right messages at the right time. Following renewed US commitment to engagement and focus on the region demonstrated most recently by Secretary Clinton’s strong performance at the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) meeting in Hanoi, the President has a unique opportunity to underline American focus and follow through on his rhetorical commitment to be “the first Pacific President.” The decision to invite his ASEAN colleagues to Washington, DC would be seen as follow through on that vision. A meeting in New York, on the margins of UNGA, during a period where over 100 world leaders visit the Big Apple to make their annual speeches, would be seen as opportunistic — checking the box. New York gets the meeting done. Washington demonstrates thoughtfulness and commitment.
Effective foreign policy rests on good decisions at the right time. This is one such choice and it should be made within a week to allow adequate time for planning and execution of a truly strategic summit.