U.S. Urged to Rethink ASEAN

Critics say the U.S. hasn’t focused enough attention on Southeast Asia. That could be about to change.

For years, critics have argued that U.S. foreign policy relegated Southeast Asia from its former perch near the top of the diplomatic totem pole. And it’s true that the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, and the subsequent War on Terror, diverted the spotlight toward the Middle East and Central Asia.

The economic importance of China and India has also preoccupied policy wonks within the Beltway, although some critics, like Hawaii-based academic and author Mohan Malik, have consistently argued that too much hype has been attached to both countries.

His latest book, China and India – Great Power Rivals, argues there’s more to political life than China or India, and he “seeks to temper the hyperbole that characterizes a lot of the writing” about the pair.

Now the Asia Society has added its considerable weight behind this call for a shift in priorities, with a report “U.S.-East Asia Relations, A Strategy for Multilateral Engagement.”

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While acknowledging the Obama Administration has given Asia much greater attention, it also says, “there is a common, if unjustified, perception that for a time at the beginning of this century, the U.S. lessened its focus on the region.”

It bluntly states that a new U.S. diplomacy with the 10 nations of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) is needed, and recommends using ASEAN as a hub for Washington’s engagement with Asia on a much wider scale. There’s also a need and an opportunity for the United States to engage with ASEAN more closely as a hub for a broader approach to Asia, and to build on the newly established U.S.-ASEAN Summit and the appointment of Ambassador David Carden as the first U.S. resident representative to ASEAN.

“The U.S. should continue to deepen its understanding of ASEAN and seek out like-minded countries in the grouping,” the report said. “This should not be limited to its allies – the Philippines and Thailand – but also should include ties with Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam, and Malaysia.”

From there, cross border projects could be addressed, such as Burma.

The authors argue the 2010 elections in Burma, widely regarded as rigged, provided other nations with an opportunity to reconsider their policies on engagement with Naypyidaw, and they urge the United States to work towards a dialogue involving ASEAN and Burma.

Burma’s wish to chair the 2014 ASEAN summit was a further impetus behind the push for dialogue.

“ASEAN’s role in building a more integrated regional society based on shared norms and values should be fully recognized and supported,” the report said, adding the ASEAN Regional Forum and ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting should also receive more attention.

Importantly, there appears to be a dawning in the Western conscious that ASEAN will economically integrate as a community by 2015, opening their economies to free trade in goods, services and investments, encompassing a population of about 500 million people.

As such, the Asia Society wants the United States to engage with ASEAN on direct bilateral issues, on priorities facing East Asia across borders in terms of global governance and strike agreements to enhance trade and investment, whether bilaterally or as group.

The Asia Society isn’t suggesting that the United States is spending too much of its time on the likes of China and India, and its polite wordings were carefully crafted. But in the subtext lies a warning: the U.S. economy has faltered, while the ASEAN nations are solid as they prepare for free trade across borders.

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Critics in Southeast Asia believe the United States has fallen short of its obligations to a region that has previously often figured prominently in Washington’s foreign policy. The Asian Society report is one timely warning of many that something is amiss – and the U.S. needs to act.