The Too Quiet American in Asia

By Malcolm Cook

Citibank ad in Thailand.

Citibank ad in Thailand. Source: Fransisco Anzola’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Belying the oft-repeated stereotype of Americans in Southeast Asia as loud and self-promoting, the economic importance of the United States to the region is understated and underappreciated. American government representatives and business associations in the region should be louder and more self-promoting.

The U.S. think-tank community in Washington and beyond has done a very good job of promoting how important Southeast Asia is economically to the United States and why the U.S. government and business community should focus more on the region. Understanding the political and popular mind, much of this education campaign has focused on the number of jobs in the United States created and supported by trade with Southeast Asia and rising Southeast Asian investment in the United States.

Today from Manila to Mandalay, an active debate is being decided over the relative economic importance, present and future, of the United States and China and how Southeast Asians should respond to the region’s assumed rebalance to China. Visible trade statistics and figures on tourist and student arrivals are the most favorable to China and the most often cited ones as proof that the region is being pivoted by Adam Smith’s invisible hand towards China and away from the United States.

The economic statistics most favorable to the United States in this competitive comparison and arguably more important for Southeast Asians to consider in the debate are less cited or not collected and disseminated. One set of seductive statistics in particular is noticeable for its silence in this debate. There are no statistics published on the number of people in the region or in any of its ten economies working for U.S. firms.

Yet, this figure alone, given the political and popular currency of job figures, could go a long to addressing the widespread underappreciation of the U.S. economic role in the region. By themselves, the two largest U.S. banks in Singapore employ over 20,000 people in Singapore. These are only two of the over 2,000 U.S. firms that have located their Asian and Southeast Asian headquarters in Singapore.

Such job figures would add a very human and media-friendly face to the disproportionate share of U.S. FDI in Southeast Asia in both stock and flow terms. According to the latest UNCTAD figures, in 2012, U.S. FDI flows to Southeast Asia were 3.5 times greater than China’s while the U.S. FDI stock in the region was 6.7 times larger. Just imagine (as that is all we can do) the corresponding job figures.

The United States has the ready-made institutional infrastructure in Southeast Asia to compile and disseminate these job figures and to insert them into every presidential speech in and about the region. U. S. embassies in the region should work with their respective American Chambers of Commerce to bring these statistics into the debate. U.S. think-tanks and think-tanks in the region can play the same catalytic role in promoting the importance of America for Southeast Asian jobs as U.S. think-tanks have done for emphasizing the importance of Southeast Asia for U.S. jobs.

To learn more, read Dr. Cook’s more detailed piece for the East – West Center on this topic.  

Dr. Malcolm Cook is Senior Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore and the former East Asia Program Director at The Lowy Institute in Sydney.


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