By Ernie Bower, Senior Adviser & Director, CSIS Southeast Asia Program
This coming Friday at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York, President Barack Obama will host his counterparts from 8 of the 10 ASEAN nations for the second U.S.- ASEAN Summit. The luncheon is important because it institutionalizes American engagement in ASEAN on equal footing with other major partners such as China, India, Japan, and others. The 10 (ASEAN comprises 10 countries) + 1 (USA) formula is an important part of the structure the United States needs to have in place to pursue its strategic and economic interests in the region and in all of Asia over the long term.
The absence of President Yudhoyono of Indonesia from the summit, however, underlines the indisputable fact that U.S. engagement in Southeast Asia remains well intended but imperfect. It is a work in progress characterized by the fact that the administration’s Asia team knows what it needs to do and to a large extent is taking the necessary steps to strengthen its foundation in ASEAN as it moves to reshape regional security and trade architecture. The gap is at the political level with the White House, and more existentially with the distance between the American policy elite’s understanding of ASEAN’s core importance to the United States and the garnering of political support for that reality among the American public.
Closing the gap is a necessary condition for sustained and serious US engagement in Southeast Asia. The casualties caused by its existence represent real challenges to extending US influence in Asia. President Yudhoyono of Indonesia is not attending the summit, at least in part, because it is politically difficult for him to do so after President Obama tried and failed to follow through on three planned visits to Indonesia. Indonesia is important. It is the largest country in Southeast Asia by over two times, and its economy at approximately $700 billion is by far the region’s largest. Each planned presidential trip was postponed for different US domestic political reasons. Each died on the political cutting floor of the White House due to the fact that the administration’s political advisers trump its Asia policy team when push comes to shove.
If the link was made, the political gurus could translate engagement with ASEAN as a clear winner for the United States. President Obama is a world-class communicator. Given his wonk-like understanding of the importance to the United States of a strong foundation in Southeast Asia, he could bring the message of the benefits of engagement home to American’s who want jobs and security.
The issue that would gain traction in the US now is clearly economic growth and jobs. The political link to Southeast Asia is therefore trade. Southeast Asia is America’s fourth-largest trade partner and among the fastest growing emerging market with a combined gross domestic product forecast at more than 6 percent this year and prospects for even higher growth in 2011 and beyond.
Trade will sell with Southeast Asia, too. The region is the most trade-dependent grouping of countries on the planet, with trade accounting for nearly 100 percent of aggregate gross domestic product. ASEAN’s leaders should encourage a proactive US stance on trade. To date, ASEAN negotiators have not seriously considered sustained efforts from the Office of the US Trade Representative to explore the possibility of accelerating the current Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA), a forum for outlining the challenges that need to be addressed ahead of serious discussions regarding a US ASEAN Free Trade Agreement (FTA).
The best outcomes of the second U.S.-ASEAN Summit would be for President Obama to tell America why he is investing his time and energy in the meeting. The security agenda is compelling in its own right. Politically, setting a vision for a U.S.-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement would be the strongest signal that could come out of New York on Friday.