Should the US Combine Missions of US Ambassador to ASEAN and Special Envoy for Burma?

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

The White House has not yet released a name for its choice as US Ambassador to ASEAN.  Before it does, it might consider combining that mission with position of US Special Envoy for Burma.

The Administration has stepped up its focus on Southeast Asia with both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates having visited the region last month with related missions to set the table for US entrance into the East Asian Summit (EAS) and investing in strengthening bilateral ties with friendly countries around the region.  To effectively drive an enduring and effective Asian regional security and trade architecture, the US has determined, correctly, that it must have a strong partnership with ASEAN.  Further, it recognizes that if ASEAN is to be at the core of a such structures, it needs to develop stronger institutions and capabilities.  A highly professional and proactive US Ambassador to ASEAN must be in place to advocate for consistent focus, bandwidth and resources in this context.

The White House has indicated that the next US Ambassador to ASEAN, succeeding Mr. Scot Marciel (who is awaiting Senate confirmation as Ambassador-designate to Indonesia), former Ambassador and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Southeast Asia, will be located in Jakarta where the ASEAN Secretariat is based.  The US was the first country to indicate it would name an ambassador to ASEAN and the first to signal that the ambassador would be based in Jakarta, but the Japanese have moved ahead and while the Obama Administration considers its options, has named Mr. Takio Yamada the first ambassador to ASEAN resident in Jakarta.  ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan received Mr. Yamada’s credentials in Jakarta on July 27, 2010.

An American ambassador to ASEAN will need to be a highly skilled diplomat, combining credibility and commitment with the diplomacy to avoid stepping on the toes of his or her counterparts serving as heads of mission in the ASEAN countries.   It will not be easy to cover the territory in the region as well as visiting US agencies inside the Beltway regularly to advocate for support and resources that will be needed to support a new level of US engagement in key regional fora.

Another position that the US is being pressured to fill is a US Special Envoy for Burma.  This position was mandated by the Tom Lantos Block Burmese JADE Act which was signed into law by President Bush on July 29, 2008.  The Act was approved in a bipartisan vote and supported by then Senator-Barack Obama.  The law includes three doctrines:  1) impose new financial sanctions and travel restrictions on the leaders of the junta and their associates;  2)  tighten the economic sanctions imposed in 2003 by outlawing the importation of Burmese gems to the United States; and 3)  create a new position of US “special representative and policy coordinator” for Burma.

The question is whether the positions should be consolidated.

The Pros. By combining the positions of Ambassador to ASEAN and Special Envoy for Burma, a senior level diplomat will be forward deployed in the region and in a position to sustain high-level representation in ASEAN while maintaining focus on one of the most intractable issues hindering real ASEAN integration – the politically cloistered and authoritarian Burmese regime.  A dual hatted diplomat could ensure the centrality of the Burma issue at key meetings while seeking regional support for finding results-oriented solutions to the problems presented by Burma’s unwillingness to open its political system and takes steps away from its current record of human rights abuses, repression and possibly exploring options for developing nuclear weapons.  In addition, it is likely that by combining the missions, both positions could be filled soon.

The Cons. On the other hand, the by giving the new US Ambassador to ASEAN the Burma job, the US may put itself back into a policy box that the Obama Administration stepped out of early on – namely, by asserting a new engagement strategy for Burma, the Americans got back to the table with ASEAN.  No longer did Burma keep the US away from pursuing its regional national interests from trade and investment to security concerns.   In return, the Administration made a pact to live up to its commitment to sustain a very high level focus on Burma, seeking resolution to unacceptable conditions thrust on the Burmese people by the military government.   Unfortunately, Burma has shut down the energetic initiatives spearheaded by Assistant Secretary State Kurt Campbell.   Rules for elections have provided little if any new political space, dates for elections remain a mystery and the Burmese government has provided no cooperation to the US on important issues such as  nuclear proliferation, refugees and human rights abuses of minority groups.   Given the commitment of advocacy groups working on Burma as well the urgent need for progress, a dual-portfolio ambassador may find that the ASEAN agenda could be overtaken by his/her Burma mandate.

In conclusion, while the idea of combining the jobs of US Ambassador to ASEAN with Special Envoy for Burma offers a certain bureaucratic efficiency, pursing this option would undercut the ability of even the most experienced diplomat to deliver on each portfolio.  The US should not combine these two important positions, but it should move forward with all due speed on nominating qualified candidates for both roles and seeking their confirmation in the US Senate at the earliest possible date.


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