By Jeremiah Magpile
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the launch of the Brunei-U.S. English Language Enrichment for ASEAN September 7 during a visit to Brunei, in a significant gesture of U.S. support of ASEAN. English is the official language of ASEAN, and the program is designed to help unify the diverse, ten member organization ahead of the proposed 2015 ASEAN Economic Zone. The Brunei-funded $25 million program demonstrates that the United States recognizes that an empowered ASEAN will improve regional stability and economic cohesion.
The program is part of a five-year joint initiative to improve English language capacity, advance educational opportunities, and improve diplomatic relations in ASEAN. Both countries will welcome 70 government officials and teacher-trainers for an intensive 11-week English and leadership course that will enhance professional communication skills, discuss critical regional issues, and teach the latest in information technology. Participants will spend 7 weeks in the University of Brunei-Darussalam and 4 weeks at the East West Center in Honolulu. Graduates will then work with universities and schools in their home countries to maintain their skills.
The initiative targets less developed ASEAN members, including Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam, and hopes to improve integration with their more developed neighbors. The United States’ involvement in soft-power initiatives such as these empowers countries to boost support for a continued US presence in the region, and equips them with the skills to compete in the global economy. These modest steps are necessary components of a broader regional policy of engagement in the region that shows that the United States takes seriously its strategy in Southeast Asia.
Furthermore, greater cooperation with Brunei is an important step for U.S. diplomacy in the region, particularly given Brunei’s chairmanship of ASEAN and the East Asia Summit in 2013. Brunei will play a critical role in shaping the ASEAN agenda and coordinating strategies to enhance regional stability, and soft power initiatives such as the language program are crucial in influencing attitudes.
ASEAN is gaining strength, and support from the United States gives ASEAN a much needed boost following hiccups earlier this year in Phnom Penh. The United States and many ASEAN leaders are hoping to avoid a repeat of July when Brunei takes on its chairmanship. Soft power initiatives such as the English enrichment program are key steps that will ensure a strong ASEAN and secure United States interests in the region.
Mr. Jeremiah Magpile is a researcher with the Chair for Southeast Asia Studies.