Hillary Clinton—A Secretary of State Fluent in ASEAN

By Ernest Z. Bower, Senior Adviser and Director, CSIS Southeast Asia Program

This should be a good week for U.S. engagement in ASEAN. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives in Vietnam for the seventeenth annual ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) as most of you read this note. By definition, that means a good week for U.S. strategy in Asia.

Setting a strong ASEAN foundation will provide Americans a balanced perspective on which to build an enduring Asia strategy. Enduring in this context means strategic pillars that will serve U.S. interests in the region for two to three decades. A strong presence and good ties in Southeast Asia will help the United States and Asian partners welcome China to continue a relatively peaceful and constructive entrance onto the regional and global stage. That welcome applies not only to China, but to India, a giant country with massive contributions to make and equal claims to historical trade, cultural, and social ties to Southeast Asia. ASEAN is the dynamic center for a new Asia, and the United States has well-established interests and strong ties in the region. Secretary Clinton recognizes that fact, even if she has not yet connected all the dots to take full advantage of the U.S. leadership position in the region. The good news is that not only is she showing up, but she is armed with ideas and initiatives.

This is a secretary of state who is fluent in ASEAN—one who not only knows what the multiplicity of ASEAN acronyms stand for, but also understands the concepts and history behind most of them. This high-level ASEAN fluency is welcome and represents a significant opportunity for the United States in Asia. Clinton has prepared well for the ARF and has also deployed her deputies to prepare the ground before she arrives. Kurt Campbell has been a forward-deployed ASEAN-focused assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs, even while dealing with the unwelcome surprise of a Japan relationship gone rogue, real threat of confrontation in the Koreas, and the need for laser-like focus on China. Under secretary of state for political affairs Bill Burns is wrapping up a visit to Thailand, Cambodia, the Philippines, and Indonesia, reconfirming U.S. commitments and highlighting key issues ahead of the secretary’s arrival. Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg has also been a key actor in Foggy Bottom’s ASEAN initiative, having made several trips to the region with a follow-up planned after the ARF meeting.

The Americans have some heavy lifting to do in Hanoi. For one, it is time to show the U.S. hand on regional architecture. Look for Secretary Clinton to indicate that the United States is interested in joining the East Asian Summit (EAS). The United States will likely join with Russia, and the EAS will then consist of the 10 ASEAN countries forming its core—plus Australia, China, India, Japan, Korea, and New Zealand. In terms of U.S. commitment, the EAS would require the U.S. president to participate every year, as the EAS is held back to back with the annual ASEAN Summit. In terms of a long-term U.S. approach to Asia, the EAS was the only realistic choice for regional architecture. It puts the United States fully at the table, with ASEAN at the center of the structure. The hard parts will be building the EAS into an effective organization, overcoming the battle with domestically focused scheduling mandarins at the White House, helping ASEAN to become a stronger and more unified organization so the foundation of Asian regionalism is sound, and, last but not least, rationalizing regional structures to clean up redundancy and use that most precious commodity, the bandwidth of leaders, efficiently.

The last of these will require some hard decisions. The intention of the EAS is to create an effective regional organization that can provide direction and real results in economic, political, and security affairs. To do this well, it will need to reconcile, absorb, or establish real coordination with the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF)—coordinated by the ministries of foreign affairs and including 17 ASEAN dialogue partners and observers; the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting +8 (ADMM+8)—coordinated by the ministries of defense and consisting of ASEAN and the same eight partners within the EAS; and the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum—coordinated by the ministries of foreign affairs and trade, including 21 economies from around the Pacific. Arguably, ARF and ADMM+8 can serve the EAS as direct inputs, but APEC is a more significant challenge. It has primarily delivered results in economic and related areas, some very practical such as the APEC visa program, but most have tended to be more aspirational than concrete. The Transpacific Partnership (TPP) is, from an American perspective, probably the most serious Asia-wide trade enabling initiative at this time, and while its eventual goal is to be a Free Trade Area for the Asia Pacific (FTAAP) and expand to cover all eligible Asian countries, it is not technically part of APEC.

Therefore, it is likely that APEC economies will need to take a hard look at whether leaders— meaning the top official managing the affairs of state for each entity—will still need to meet annually if EAS summits are held annually. Don’t look for strong U.S. leadership on this decision until after President Obama hosts APEC in Hawaii in 2011. After that date, there will likely be a hard look at how APEC can be effective as a bridge to the Americas, an investment that should not be taken lightly or discarded. However, the question of continuing annual APEC Leaders meetings will certainly come under serious scrutiny.

Turning back to Secretary Clinton’s visit to Hanoi, we can expect to see a real test for the dialogue on the South China Sea set of issues. While Burma and North Korea will feature prominently on the agenda, all parties agree privately that the South China Sea is a priority issue. China has worked tirelessly over the last weeks and months to ensure that the issue is not on the agenda at the ARF. Meanwhile, most Southeast Asian countries want light shed on the issue, particularly those that are claimants in the Spratley Islands disputed territory. Like the case of the sunken South Korean frigate Cheonan, there is need for transparency, dialogue, and a clear statement of interests so diplomacy has a chance to be effective. China’s mixed messages, stating that the South China Sea is one of its “core interests” while at the same time trying to keep it off of the agenda for regional political and security discussions, is not a recipe for peace and mutual prosperity. Such an approach can lead to serious misunderstandings and, worse, maritime confrontations that are not in the interests of any country.

U.S. interests should be well served by having a secretary of state fluent in ASEAN at the ARF. It doesn’t hurt that Mrs. Clinton also has a perfect attendance record at the annual ASEAN meeting and is focused on the right issues. The outcomes of the ARF discussions will be an important point of departure for the next round of discussions on U.S.- ASEAN relations and regional architecture. Watch the cables from Hanoi carefully this week.


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