By Ernie Bower
President Barack Obama intends to follow through on his plans to pivot or rebalance the focus of U.S. foreign policy toward the Indo-Pacific region. In June, he instructed his Cabinet members to each plan a trip to Asia, at least once a year, to enhance U.S. engagement across the region.
His leadership team has taken note. This week, United States Trade Representative Michael Froman will attend the ASEAN Economic Ministers (AEM) Meeting and related meetings in Brunei from August 20 to 24, following his stop in Japan to talk about the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade negotiations. On August 29, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel will travel to Brunei for the second ASEAN Defense Minister Meeting-Plus, which brings together the 18 defense ministers from the East Asia Summit countries. Hagel will also make visits to Indonesia and Malaysia. In June, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius visited Thailand and Vietnam, and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz joined Secretary of State John Kerry in India. Demonstrating his understanding of the president’s directive and leadership in the cabinet, Vice President Joe Biden visited India and Singapore in July to underline U.S. economic and security commitment to the region.
Obama’s directive underlines the reality that the lead Indo-Pacific desk officer for the United States is none other than the president himself. The energy for engagement with Asia in Obama’s second term is coming from the White House.
The president clearly understands the importance of Asia to the economic well-being and security of the United States. He should; born in Hawaii and having spent childhood years in Indonesia, Obama is a keen consumer of data that shows the Indo-Pacific will drive global economic dynamism over the next several decades. The world’s most important security efforts will also focus on this pivotal part of the world.
From a Washington perspective, Froman’s participation in the AEM this week is vital. U.S. engagement with ASEAN at the economic level is the key to implementing a comprehensive strategy that seeks to support the development of ASEAN-centric regional frameworks for both economics and security, recognizing that the two are linked. For this reason, U.S. cabinet-level engagement at the AEM has become a command performance, and is now as important as the U.S. secretary of state attending the ASEAN Regional Forum each year. Froman is leading the charge to put economic engagement back on track, joining security and people-to-people ties as vital thrusts in U.S. strategy toward the Indo-Pacific.
In the future, Froman should consider inviting his counterpart at the Department of Commerce, Secretary Penny Pritzker, to join him for the AEM. Pritzker could encourage U.S. business participation at the CEO level, and help round out discussions about trade negotiations, which are Froman’s forte, with trade and investment promotion and enforcement. These are key themes at the AEM that would advance U.S. interests in the region and help demonstrate a united private-public partnership approach to partners in the region.
Participation in the AEM is fundamental not only strategically, but in a very practical way. It gives the U.S. government and private sector a seat at the table as important issues regarding economic integration in the fast-developing Indo-Pacific move forward.
A necessary next step will be for U.S. cabinet members to heed the direction given them by President Obama in the years to come, and make at least one visit to Asia each year. An ideal anchor for secretaries of energy, health, agriculture, and others would be to attend the ASEAN ministerial meetings for their portfolios during these trips, to leverage the developing regional architecture, maximize the investment of time and resources by meeting a large number of their counterparts in one venue, and send a clear signal to regional partners that the United States is institutionally engaged at both the bilateral and regional levels.
These visits would also allow Obama’s cabinet members to make specific and substantive recommendations to him on how to prioritize policy objectives and drive U.S. engagement when he participates in the East Asia Summit each year.
Ernest Bower is Chair of the Southeast Asia Advisory Board at CSIS.