By Ernest Z. Bower, Senior Adviser and Director, CSIS Southeast Asia Program
In a letter dated 25 August 2010, US Senator Richard Lugar (Republican of Indiana) urged President Barack Obama to move expeditiously in appointing a new US Ambassador to ASEAN. “As you are aware,” states Lugar, “the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is a strategic partner of the United States and our nation’s fourth largest export market.”
Lugar, a friend and adviser of the President from their days together in the Senate (in fact, Lugar was rumored to be under consideration for the Secretary of State position during the Obama transition period, goes on to point out that the Senate schedule will preclude a nominee for US Ambassador to ASEAN from being confirmed before the US ASEAN Summit which is being planned for late September or early October in either Washington or New York. “Factoring in fall recess, we will be fortunate if a timely nomination may allow for sufficient time for the Senate to consider the Ambassador-nominee prior to the end of the year,” noted Lugar.
The new Ambassador will be the first US Ambassador to ASEAN to be posted in Jakarta, Indonesia the home of the ASEAN Secretariat. As ASEAN moves toward its vision of full economic, political and cultural integration, Jakarta is slowly becoming the Brussels of ASEAN. Last month, Japan became the first country to post an ambassador to ASEAN in Jakarta who is not double-hatted as the ambassador to Indonesia. A new US Ambassador would follow, and it is expected that other countries will pursue this model.
Notably, Senator Lugar was the driver behind the idea to name a US Ambassador to ASEAN several years ago. That idea has now fully matured and evolved.
The US Ambassador to ASEAN will need to have a very special set of skills. At once providing leadership for US engagement in this most dynamic region and at the same time avoiding stepping on the toes of his or her fellow Ambassadors to the ten ASEAN countries. Additionally, it will be important to for the new appointee to check his or her ego at the door, as this post will not come — at least not initially – with an Embassy or mission — the Ambassador will share space at the US Embassy in Jakarta.
Administration sources indicate that a nominee is under consideration but they are careful not to name names until the President has made his decision. At the time of this writing, the White House has still not indicated dates or venue for the 2nd US ASEAN Summit, a fact which is building tension among ASEAN Embassies here in Washington, DC who need to make plans — and hotel reservations! — if the Summit is on within a month’s time.