U.S. Pivot to ASEAN: Where Are We Now?

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The 25th ASEAN Summit is around the corner. One question worth asking is: How committed is the U.S. to the pivot to ASEAN?

Since establishing the ASEAN-U.S. Dialogue Relations in 1977, the bilateral partnership has developed quite slowly. In fairness, this may have been a factor of different American presidential administrations, coupled with political and economic instability throughout Southeast Asia. Nevertheless, under the Obama Administration, the U.S. has demonstrated a seemingly firm recommitment to the region. The proverbial needle has pointed squarely at ASEAN, with both parties standing to gain significantly from political-security and economic cooperation.

According to the ASEAN Secretariat, total trade between ASEAN and the U.S. increased 3.5 percent, from $200 billion to $206.9 billion, between 2012 and 2013. The U.S. was the third largest source of foreign direct investment (FDI) to ASEAN, with a share of 9.7 percent, reaching $11.1 billion in 2012. In July 2009, the U.S. acceded to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC). Then, in September 2010, the U.S. Permanent Mission to ASEAN was established with David Lee Carden as the first U.S. resident ambassador to ASEAN. All of which would suggest a legitimate, if somewhat modest, commitment.

Despite progress, it’s reasonable to suggest that the ASEAN-U.S. relationship isn’t yet cemented. The first ASEAN-U.S. Summit – one of the first major platforms for serious dialogue at the highest levels of leadership  – was only held in 2013. This is not to be confused with the ASEAN-U.S. Leaders Meeting. The summit was held only after both ASEAN and the U.S. had elevated their status to a strategic level, during the Leaders Meeting. At the strategic level, both parties can discuss plans to strengthen bilateral cooperation.

While this is a good step forward, it is a little too early to celebrate. There are too many moving pieces, especially east of the Pacific in the U.S. For one thing, it isn’t at all clear whether the next American president will share the same level of interest in strengthening ASEAN-U.S. relations.

For now, though, the relationship stands to benefit from a promising new development. In 2014, President Obama nominated Nina Hachigian, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, to be the next U.S. representative to ASEAN with the rank of Ambassador, replacing Carden. On September 14, the U.S. Senate confirmed the nomination.

Though a non-career diplomat, Hachigian has written extensively on foreign policy and Asia. Some of her works include, Debating China: The U.S.-China Relationship in Ten Conversations; The Next American Century: How the U.S. Can Thrive as Other Powers Rise; and The Information Revolution in Asia. She also has covered the Asia-Pacific region in different leadership roles at RAND Corporation, a non-profit institution that provides research and analysis to policymakers.

Hachigian appears to understand the complex landscape that is ASEAN-U.S. relations. And while her research was never particular to ASEAN, she has written extensively on America’s bilateral relations with China. In dealing with ASEAN, it will be important for her to keep some key points in mind, particularly in pushing beyond the usual suspects of trade, investment, South China Sea, and terrorism:

  1. While political-security and economic cooperation is important, so too is socio-cultural cooperation.
  2. Socio-cultural cooperation is about investing in people, which includes investing in education, and is more than making English the lingua franca.
  3. Investing in people-to-people relations not only builds skills and capacity for locals, but is likely to strengthen and sustain ASEAN-U.S. relations because of shared commitments and values.
  4. Social innovation, a huge phenomenon that is helping the disadvantaged in the U.S., is disrupting markets in a good way. ASEAN is ready for this kind of innovation, and the U.S. should lead in this important effort throughout the region.

While the 2016 U.S. presidential election could swing the pendulum away from ASEAN, Hachigian has two years to make her mark. Will she play it safe? Or will she be able to permanently solidify ASEAN-U.S. relations?

Peter T. Keo is a Southeast Asia/ASEAN-U.S. expert. He was educated at Harvard University, Columbia University and The University of Chicago. Follow him @GlobalASEAN.

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