WASHINGTON, D.C. – If you read the media accounts of what transpired at the Special ASEAN-U.S. Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Washington, D.C., last week, you would be forgiven for thinking that it was largely about the United States lecturing representatives from the ten Southeast Asian nations about how to cut their ties with North Korea. But if you talk to those who were actually involved in those deliberations, it quickly becomes clear that this picture is both inaccurate and incomplete (See: “The Real Challenge for US-ASEAN Relations Under Trump”).
Such glaring disconnects between what happened and what made the headlines are quite common. Nonetheless, addressing it in this instance is important not only to get an understanding of what actually occurred at an important early engagement between the United States and ASEAN, but also to correct misperceptions that could otherwise feed into existing narratives in both the United States and Southeast Asia.
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It is not uncommon for Southeast Asia-related events – be it the U.S.-ASEAN Sunnylands Summit in California last year or annual, rotating ASEAN summits – to be viewed in U.S. and international media circles almost wholly from the prism of broader, extraregional threats: be it the Islamic State, the South China Sea, North Korea, or China (See: “Why the US-ASEAN Sunnylands Summit Matters“). Though some are quick to sloppily attribute this to the business models of media outlets, in the U.S. context, it is in fact due to a confluence of more structural factors, including the sober reality that Southeast Asia still occupies a marginal role in U.S. foreign policy in general and U.S. Asia policy in particular.
This is an enduring problem. As I have written previously, Southeast Asia really first rose to prominence in U.S. circles in the context of threats to the United States and to its European and Asian allies and partners, be it Imperial Japan during World War II or the Soviet Union during the Cold War (See: “Trump’s Real ASEAN Test”). And despite the sub-region’s increasing importance in recent years – it is now cumulatively the fourth largest U.S. export market and a convener of Asian multilateral forums for major powers to engage – U.S. attention has continued to wax and wane depending on the threat of the day, be it the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997 or the war on terrorism in the 2000s.
Barack Obama was arguably the first U.S. president who really tried to change this, elevating Southeast Asia’s strategic importance within U.S. Asia policy and boosted U.S. commitment to the region to back it up. But there were always doubts in the region about whether this would be sustained after Obama left office, especially with the rise of challenges in other parts of Asia as well as around the world and the unconventional nature of the incoming Trump administration (See: “US Asia Policy After Obama: Opportunities and Challenges”).
The rocky start by the Trump administration on Asia policy initially seemed to confirm this. The nixing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the questioning of the One China policy, and the Trump travel ban (which led to unsubstantiated rumors about a potential expansion to cover Southeast Asian states) had all sent initial anxieties throughout the region about what it might expect from an “America First” foreign policy. This was also occurring just as ASEAN as the organization commemorates its 50th anniversary and U.S.-ASEAN relations celebrate their 40th year.
What the Special Meeting Was Really About
Such was the backdrop for the origins of the Special ASEAN-U.S. Foreign Ministers’ Meeting – which technically featured foreign ministers from most but not all ASEAN countries (Vietnam and Myanmar being the notable exceptions, with the Philippines sending an acting foreign secretary) and also the ASEAN deputy secretary-general (the secretary-general was unable to make it).
The idea, U.S. and ASEAN officials say, came not from a Trump administration waiting to deliver a lecture to smaller Southeast Asian states, but from ASEAN countries who wanted to get an early sense of where a new administration was headed both in terms of its engagement with Asia, but also its relationship with ASEAN during a critical year.
The Trump administration obliged, and that was not surprising. At a time when so many other areas of Asia policy – from China to North Korea – seemed to suggest discontinuity and even disruption, Southeast Asia was a good opportunity to signal continuity. And unlike other commitments to engagements that the administration had already made or may consider making, like Trump’s attendance at Asian summits or the convening of a U.S.-ASEAN summit meeting in the United States, this was also a relatively lighter lift since ASEAN countries would be doing the traveling and it would involve Tillerson and other less senior officials, rather than the president himself (See: ‘Why Trump Must Go To ASEAN and APEC in the Philippines and Vietnam”).
It is that logic for both sides that explains why an otherwise routine round of U.S.-ASEAN engagement, characterized by the annual U.S.-ASEAN Dialogue which usually features senior officials and barely gets that much press coverage, also saw foreign ministers from Southeast Asia to make their way to Washington for a special meeting this year. Apart from the Special ASEAN-U.S. Foreign Ministers’ Meeting would, ASEAN officials had other engagements as well, including meetings with National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster and interactions with business leaders and think tanks.
The Special ASEAN-U.S. Foreign Ministers’ Meeting itself, officials say, touched on a range of issues related to U.S. engagement in the Asia-Pacific as well as U.S.-ASEAN relations more specifically. This included not just North Korea, but regional developments like the South China Sea as well as aspects of U.S. policy to Southeast Asia like trade and investment.
The discussions also reflected concerns simmering beneath the surface, which are tied to enduring worries and do not typically make the public statements released. For Southeast Asian states, the fundamental concern is that a narrow, threat-oriented “America First” prism overly focused on security issues like terrorism and China will once again lead to missed opportunities in the economic realm, restrictions on their alignments, or rising anti-American sentiment among their populations.
For the United States, the issue, as ever, is that ASEAN could do more on regional and global issues critical to U.S. interests. This is especially the case since the United States had elevated the importance it attaches to ASEAN through a series of steps under the Obama administration, including forging a strategic partnership in 2015. While this concern was evident at a strategic level in the engagement between Tillerson and the ASEAN ministers, both sides also discussed more operational issues at the U.S.-ASEAN Senior Officials Dialogue the previous day that the State Department hosted at the assistant secretary-level.
How North Korea Factored In
That is where North Korea, to the extent that it was discussed at the meeting, comes in. The United States has long been pressuring Southeast Asian states to curtail their relationships with North Korea, framing this under the “doing more on regional and global issues that are central to U.S. interests” mantra. This U.S. tendency is not restricted to North Korea – it includes other issues as well, including the South China Sea, the Islamic State, and China. Southeast Asian states, for their part, have, to varying degrees, been increasingly concerned about North Korean behavior and its threats to regional and global stability but at the same time reluctant to sever their multifaceted ties with Pyongyang entirely even if some have begun tightening the screws.
But at this stage of the Trump administration, the attention to the North Korean threat has increased appreciably, both on its own terms and relative to other challenges. U.S. officials, including Tillerson, have been ratcheting up the pressure on the issue in engagements with individual countries as well as in diplomatic forums like the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Southeast Asian states, too, have been concerned about the rising threat that Pyongyang poses, with the death of Kim Jong-nam, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s estranged half-brother, in Malaysia being one recent manifestation (See: “The Myth of a North Korea-Malaysia Special Relationship”).
So it was not surprising that North Korea did feature at the meeting, and that U.S. officials and reporters alike would have been keen to play it up. At a press conference after the meeting, despite the broad range of topics discussed during the deliberations itself, half of the questions asked by reporters were on North Korea (all but two touched on either North Korea or the South China Sea in some form).
And U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary Patrick Murphy, for his part, did say that Tillerson emphasized the need for full implementation of UNSC resolutions by all Southeast Asian states as well as the minimization of diplomatic and commercial engagement as part of a wider effort to pressure North Korea. Two Southeast Asian sources familiar with the details of the meeting said that the discussion was quite specific in terms of requests from Washington.
At the same time, the degree to which the North Korea factored into the meeting was also exaggerated as a result. With many media outlets seizing on the North Korean angle, it drowned out the other important issues related to the U.S. presence in the region and U.S. engagement with ASEAN that were discussed and had in fact resulted in the Special Meeting alongside the U.S.-ASEAN Dialogue as well as the fact that this was a big commemorative year for both ASEAN itself and for U.S.-ASEAN relations.
It also painted a rather one-sided picture of the United States lecturing Southeast Asian states on the North Korean issue, when in fact the reception by these countries was quite mixed on some of the requests made by Washington, and several of them have already been doing quite a lot on this question on their own anyway. Unsurprisingly, the nuances about U.S. respect for sovereignty and acknowledgement of the interests of ASEAN countries did not make it into some of these media accounts.
But perhaps most importantly, it both typified and perpetuated the same pattern we have seen in U.S.-Southeast Asia relations discussed at the outset: where broader regional and global threats have dominated, thereby making ties seem too narrow and security-focused, which ASEAN states have long complained about.