ASEAN Impact: Ideas, Identities and Integration


The Rebalance authors Mercy Kuo and Angie Tang regularly engage subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into the U.S. rebalance to Asia. This conversation with Alice Ba, Associate Professor of Political Science and International Relations, University of Delaware, and author of (Re)Negotiating East and Southeast Asia: Regions, Regionalism, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, is the thirteenth in “The Rebalance Insight Series.”

What three overarching ideas are underpinning ASEAN’s integration?

Resilience or strength in unity. This has interdependent national and regional dimensions. Integration is associated with development and stability. Similarly, integration is also about the pursuit of regional unity. A particular challenge to ASEAN has been the unevenness of economic development among states, especially the newest members. This affects their connectedness with others in Southeast Asia and consequently, their economic priorities, their external relationships, and their perceptions of ASEAN. Integration is about leveling development gaps, linking economies through various economic and infrastructure ties, and serving common security through shared development.

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Competitiveness or relevance: ASEAN states are small-to-middle sized countries and economies. Integration serves states’ interests in bolstering their standing vis-à-vis larger players.

Centrality – meaning ASEAN’s occupying pride of place in Asia’s institutional architecture. Of the three ideas, this is the most recent and controversial. Some think that ASEAN is ill-equipped to occupy such a place. Others think that it sets unrealistic, potentially detrimental, objectives for ASEAN. Notwithstanding significant challenges, ASEAN centrality, for the ASEAN states, serves as a counter to great power concert and rivalry, and other great power dominated scenarios; however, ASEAN centrality ultimately depends on a more united and coherent ASEAN. Greater integration is part of that.

How would you assess the impact of U.S. rebalance to Asia on Southeast Asia and how do you see it evolving under a post-Obama presidency?

Understanding the impact and significance of the rebalance requires understanding what has made it distinct. The military dimension of the rebalance may be the least novel aspect, though it does display a sharper China edge to it; it also remains the most stable piece of the rebalance despite outstanding questions about U.S. strategic commitments and purpose. Economically, the administration’s activism in pushing the (currently, stymied) Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations has been notable, but it also came relatively late compared to the rebalance’s other dimensions. And in fact, a longstanding criticism of contemporary U.S. Southeast Asia policy has been how other priorities – military, political, human rights, domestic politics – overshadow and at times hijack the larger U.S.-Southeast Asia economic relationship, including US economic interests. The domestic costs associated with the U.S.-led liberalization agenda and its association with a larger strategic agenda has also complicated negotiations.

So what is distinct? The Obama administration’s rebalance policy is made distinct by first, the explicit and strategic attention given to regional arrangements, especially ASEAN, and also Southeast Asia as a region with distinct perspectives. U.S. Asia policy has been historically bilateral and Northeast Asia-centric, so the attention to regional institutions and Southeast Asia is significant. Second, the rebalance is made distinct by the Administration’s effort to link the three dimensions of the rebalance in a ways that serve a larger, common strategic purpose. And while that larger strategic overlay – U.S. competition with China – has also challenged initiatives like the TPP, the effort to unify policies that too often seem to run on separate tracks is also of note. It is the attention to regional institutions and Southeast Asia and the effort to cohere and nuance the three policy tracks that make the “rebalance” distinct, but they are also the ones most vulnerable under a post-Obama presidency.

As China’s regional leadership and leverage become increasingly ubiquitous, what are key indicators of ASEAN’s hedging strategies vis-à-vis China, Japan, India, and the United States?

At heart, hedging is a policy of diversification – diversification of partners and also modes of engagement under conditions of uncertainty. Hedging is evident in Southeast Asian states’ dealings with each of the major powers. Thus, even as individual states expand their military engagement with the United States in response to maritime tensions involving China, they are also expanding economic relations with China through the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiatives. Similarly, they welcome Japan’s post-AIIB efforts to refocus on infrastructure development in the Asian Development Bank and increase infrastructure investment in the Mekong. States negotiate the TPP, bilateral FTAs [Free Trade Agreements] with different countries, and also the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

With Southeast Asia’s vastly divergent identities, what are the convergent, if any, common denominators of social and political change?

Despite their differences, ASEAN states do face some common transnational and global pressures, as well as domestic changes, that compel political adaptations if regimes and governments are to survive and if economies are to thrive – though not all will adapt in the same ways or at the same pace.

What key factors should U.S. presidential candidates understand about sustaining consequential U.S.-ASEAN interactions?

Consequentiality requires attention – and not just any attention but sustained, considered attention. Despite the Obama administration’s efforts, ASEAN states know that their interests compete with crises worldwide, other global interests, and U.S. domestic politics. Meanwhile, considered attention includes appreciating the local nuances of Southeast Asian states’ interests and perspectives. It means U.S.-Southeast Asia policy that is not just a function of U.S.-China policy. In general, Southeast Asian states seek credible military and economic commitments from the United States but not in ways that create more conflictual relations with China or that disrupt regional cooperative processes. This will be a difficult line to walk.

Consequential interactions also means recognizing the importance attached to ASEAN, especially. U.S. officials may find ASEAN frustrating in its agendas and how it works but active engagement of ASEAN – as the Obama administration has done – soothes ASEAN anxieties. Just as important, ASEAN represents a regionally consultative approach and offers Washington ways to build consensus for U.S. priorities. In addition, for ASEAN states, consequentiality means considered attention to economic relations. Economic consequentiality means, however, more than U.S.-led liberalization initiatives and platforms. It also means looking for ways to support broader and inclusive regional development and integration in East and Southeast Asia. Worth noting, for example, is that TPP negotiations took place not just without China but also without six of the ten ASEAN states. Also worth noting is the contrast in regional reception for the TPP’s regulatory liberalization agenda versus China’s AIIB development agenda. (Washington’s opposition to the AIIB was also cause for reflection.) Lastly, economic consequentiality means demonstrating forward thinking and political will about addressing the challenges facing its own economy. Proving Washington’s staying power to those in Southeast Asia will ultimately rest as much and perhaps more on economics, as military commitments.

Mercy A. Kuo is an advisory board member of CHINADebate and was previously director of the Southeast Asia Studies and Strategic Asia Programs at the National Bureau of Asian Research. Angie O. Tang is Senior Advisor of Asia Value Advisors, a leading venture philanthropy advisory firm based in Hong Kong.

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