U.S.-ASEAN Relations: Charting Next Steps during the 40th Anniversary

By Shannon Hayden —

Former president Barack Obama hosted a U.S.-ASEAN Special Leaders summit at Sunnylands, California on February 15-16, 2016. Source: U.S. Mission to ASEAN, U.S. Government Work.

The year 2017 is a milestone for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). During this 50th anniversary of the 10-nation bloc, ASEAN finds itself representing a region that is prospering and peaceful overall, having successfully both limited its ambitions and included disparate political, economic, and cultural systems. But the group suffers from persistent criticism of its consensus approach, which can result in a least-common-denominator way of doing business — leading to paralysis and preventing the organization from acting decisively on important regional challenges. ASEAN’s place, too, in a U.S.-China rivalry over influence in Asia is becoming a tougher needle to thread. Bold action may not characterize ASEAN, but if it was never meant to, how can that be a failure?

With a population of 630 million and a combined economy of $2.5 trillion, much of the organization’s focus through its 50-year existence has been on economics and the integration mechanisms needed to form a single regional market. The launch of the ASEAN Economic Community last year was the culmination of decades of planning and represents a signal that political and security concerns are secondary priorities. Despite criticism, this is a practical choice that has worked well for Southeast Asia, whose nations’ growth rates over the last generation are evidence.

ASEAN has also made itself into the focal point for regional architecture. It has enmeshed its member countries, neighbors, and far-flung others with interests in the region into an overlapping web of institutions, meetings, and working groups that address issues at the highest levels and through the cumbersome process of consensus building. The concept of ASEAN “centrality” to regional forums like the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the East Asia Summit (EAS) speaks to the way the region has successfully brought other countries, including China, to the table for international dialogue. While no one ASEAN country can yet compete for influence as a great power, together the member states have shown the role they can currently play best in the international system.

Although investment, trade, and economic integration may come first, the principal concern to ASEAN in the security realm is the South China Sea. China’s confidence, expansive influence, and determination to alter the status quo have changed the game considerably over the last decade—witness the impossibility of even referencing the Arbitral Tribunal’s strong ruling on China’s claims (in favor of the Philippines) last July in a joint ASEAN statement. Cambodia’s refusal to support language from a ruling hailed worldwide as a clear rejection of China’s actions—and subsequent public thanks from China for doing so—is as clear a signal as needed of current power dynamics. That Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte himself has “set aside” the ruling in order to avoid “imposing” on China confirms this.

The Philippines holds the rotating ASEAN chair during this anniversary year, which has as its theme “Partnering for Change, Engaging the World.” As outlined by Duterte, the regional bloc has six priorities for the year:

  • A people-oriented and people-centered ASEAN
  • Peace and stability in the region
  • Maritime security and cooperation
  • Inclusive innovation and growth
  • ASEAN’s resiliency
  • ASEAN as a model of regionalism and a global player

Nothing in these priorities suggests that ASEAN will approach its circumstances differently this year than in the past. The focus on stability, cooperation, and inclusion points to an organization that will remain flexible and responsive to its environment. While discussion of maritime security is a priority, it will likely take the form of trying to achieve progress on the framework for the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea rather than more concrete moves to dissuade China’s construction in the area.

Of interest, too, during this anniversary year is the evolution of the relationship between the United States and ASEAN. Next week, CSIS and the U.S. Embassy in Manila will hold a conference to explore key issues between the United States and ASEAN—an event helping to mark the 40th anniversary of U.S.-ASEAN relations. Convening a small group of former government officials, academics, journalists, innovators, and young leaders, CSIS is partnering with the Albert del Rosario Institute and Asia Society Philippines to develop recommendations for the next phase of the relationship.

With the November election of Donald Trump, CSIS has already offered recommendations for the new administration on how to approach Southeast Asia. The conference next week in Manila should allow for more focus on how the United States and ASEAN can support each other in a very uncertain time and what adjustments might be needed to reflect changing realities.

Asia policy in the United States has traditionally been the beneficiary of bipartisan consensus. The Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” was characterized by actions on several fronts, including additional military assets deployed to the region and the pursuit of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. But the administration also excelled at one of the simplest ways to remain part of the strategic conversation in the region—showing up.

The calendar of meetings for the institutions that make up the Asia Pacific’s regional architecture is daunting, but the Obama administration prioritized sending U.S. officials to these meetings. President Barack Obama himself visited Southeast Asia nine times in eight years, including stops in all ASEAN countries except Brunei, for bilateral and multilateral meetings like the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum and EAS.

We strongly recommend that the Trump administration preserve this practice of “showing up” to reassure ASEAN allies and partners. While it remains to be seen whether Trump will take part in multilateral meetings in the way his predecessors have, his involvement in EAS and APEC will signal to the region a continuity of U.S. commitment. Other members of the administration, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, may need to fill in where Trump is less inclined to participate. Downgrading participation is usually a bad sign, but an understanding may develop that in this particular case, the region may benefit from the presence of other senior officials.

Approaching the end of his term in office in February 2016, Obama invited the heads of the 10 ASEAN nations to a summit in Sunnylands, California. To build on this momentum and to ingrain cooperation at the highest levels between the United States and ASEAN, Trump should invite the ASEAN leaders back to the United States this year.

The table is set for ASEAN’s 50th year, and the Philippines is ready with its priorities for the region. Given uncertainties resulting from the 2016 U.S. election and shifting geopolitical momentum, it is critical that the new administration quickly makes clear its policy priorities in the Asia Pacific and the role it sees for Southeast Asia in this dynamic region.

This piece originally appeared in the February 23, 2017, issue of Southeast Asia from Scott Circle.

Ms. Shannon Hayden is associate director of the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.


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