By Norashiqin Toh —
The Obama administration has relied heavily on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as a hub for engagement with multilateral regional architecture in Asia. ASEAN centrality is touted as key to advancing U.S. interests in the area, but strengthening ASEAN unity across strategic and economic spheres is increasingly vital too. While the United States has not consciously pursued divisive policies in the region, the deepening of relations with more strategic and advanced partners within the group has put off the nations that feel ignored. To avoid creating friction between ASEAN leaders, the United States must better communicate its commitment to advancing ASEAN unity.
ASEAN centrality is not synonymous with unity. Despite its failure to issue a joint communiqué after the 2012 ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in Cambodia due to disagreements over the South China Sea, ASEAN remained the vehicle of choice for U.S. engagement in the region. However, since the organization’s regional interests are largely complementary to the United States’, a united ASEAN better matches U.S. interests. In particular, the rules-based order that much of the international community calls for in the Asia-Pacific is best upheld by a coordinated, cohesive regional group.
The geostrategic importance of Southeast Asia, between China and India and sitting astride one of the most heavily trafficked choke points in the world, is clear. A united ASEAN will play a more constructive role in the region, allowing the organization to serve as a formidable counterweight to outside pressure. As militarization and island-building activities in the South China Sea raise tensions in the region to new heights, the United States has been pushing for a resolution of the disputes through legal means.
When the Permanent Court of Arbitration delivers its decision over the Philippines’ challenge against China’s nine-dash line in the South China Sea in the coming months, ASEAN unity will be necessary to uphold the principles of international law in the region. Without a united ASEAN to support the decision, China will have room to continue flaunting international law and to exert pressure on individual countries for bilateral negotiations.
On the economic front, U.S. trade in goods and services with ASEAN has more than doubled over the past two decades, making ASEAN the fourth largest trading partner of the United States. Promoting ASEAN unity on economic issues and strengthening regional integration would be valuable to U.S. businesses looking to operate in the Asia-Pacific. As an integrated market with over 600 million people, ASEAN is far more attractive to U.S. business interests than as 10 separate countries. A thriving ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) would streamline production and investment opportunities for the United States.
It is natural that the United States would pursue deeper relations with partners more readily equipped for cooperation. The monumental Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), for instance, allows the United States to enhance engagement with the ASEAN economies that are able, or at least willing, to meet the high trade standards of the agreement. It is not intended to discriminate against the six ASEAN economies that were not part of the initial negotiations. This did not stop Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen from launching into a tirade over the “divisive” nature of the TPP at the World Economic Forum on East Asia in April 2015.
To avoid building resentment that could drive a wedge between leaders, the United States must highlight its efforts at nurturing ASEAN unity when engaging with the organization. At the U.S.-ASEAN Sunnylands summit in February, for example, the TPP did not dominate the agenda. The United States respected ASEAN’s request to focus on issues that united the member states, and the summit’s economic discussions revolved largely around innovation and entrepreneurship.
Beyond initiatives like the U.S.-ASEAN Connect, the United States can also encourage the private sector to spread investment across the different ASEAN countries by actively promoting the AEC to the U.S. business community. As it stands, most of the foreign direct investment (FDI) flows into the region are targeted at the more advanced economies. With the AEC, which is attempting to harmonize standards and ease the flow of goods and services, even the less developed economies will become more attractive for FDI, and the United States can help narrow the development gap between the ASEAN economies.
On security, the United States has stepped up efforts to build maritime capacity in Southeast Asia. Due to developments in the South China Sea, much of this assistance has been directed to the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia. However, the United States should still engage with the less strategically critical navies. In 2015, for example, the United States Pacific Command (PACOM) hosted representatives of all 10 ASEAN member states for a workshop on shared maritime awareness. The 2016 follow-up workshop will be a low-cost, significant demonstration of U.S. commitment to inclusivity.
Finally, the United States can help strengthen the ASEAN secretariat, which remains a relatively weak regional organization. It is understaffed, and headed by a secretary general with limited powers. By engaging more directly with the ASEAN secretary general, the United States can empower the ASEAN head simply through the prestige of recognition. A stronger secretariat would be better positioned to manage regional integration, and uphold unity when addressing regional challenges.