Nina Hachigian was recently appointed U.S. ambassador to ASEAN. Following a month of busy U.S. engagement in Asia, The Diplomat’s James Pach recently spoke with her.
You’ve recently completed the U.S.-ASEAN Summit and the East Asia Summit. What were the key outcomes of the meetings in your view?
Both summits were very successful, and I was happy I could attend them. At the ASEAN-U.S. Summit, President Obama reaffirmed ASEAN ties as a crucial element of the United States’ strategic rebalance in the Asia-Pacific region. He highlighted many of our ongoing cooperative activities in the three “pillars” of ASEAN—economic, political security and socio-cultural.
What was most exciting to me was that the United States and ASEAN announced the U.S.-ASEAN Joint Statement on Climate Change. This is a big deal; this demonstrates our common commitment to a successful United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris in December 2015, and it shows ASEAN stepping up on a complex issue with global ramifications.
The United States continues to work with partners to develop the East Asia Summit into the region’s leading forum for addressing political and security challenges. This year the statements on ISIL and Ebola highlighted that role.
There has been growing concern that Burma has stalled or backtracked on reforms, perhaps most notably with the Rohingya minority. What is the U.S. doing to encourage the government to continue with reforms?
President Obama expressed our deep concern about the situation in Rakhine State, in particular as it relates to the Rohingya population. In his meeting with President Thein Sein, President Obama called this issue Burma’s “most urgent matter,” noting the world is watching.
The President urged a process in Rakhine State that: 1) provides more humanitarian access for all those in need; 2) does not hold or settle Rohingya indefinitely in camps; 3) and that allows the stateless to become citizens of Burma without having to self-identify as members of a group or nationality to which they do not believe they belong. He also emphasized that if the situation in Rakhine State continues as is or deteriorates further, it threatens to derail Burma’s overall reform process.
The U.S. Government has consistently underlined that the Government of Burma has a responsibility to take appropriate steps to ensure the safety and well-being of all people in the country, and that the fundamental human rights and freedoms of all people should be respected.
ASEAN is often criticized for its inability to play a meaningful role in regional crises, such as the Asian Financial Crisis, or on issues such as human rights or the South China Sea. Do you see this criticism as fair, and does this perceived weakness constrain the ability of the U.S. to deal with ASEAN as a regional partner?
I don’t think that criticism is accurate. Repeatedly, ASEAN has voiced its concerns about developments in the South China Sea, for example, and the organization is working on many difficult regional challenges. Some of these don’t manifest themselves in “crises,” but are still critical, like wildlife trafficking, and some are, indeed, a response to crises, like natural disaster response, an issue on which there is lots of cooperation including joint exercises.
I also think we saw bit of a shift in regional politics at the annual ASEAN summits this year. The ten ASEAN Member States demonstrated an ability to look beyond their region’s immediate concerns and contribute to efforts to tackle complex and pressing global challenges. Member states increasingly understand and accept that the more they take a regional – and even global – leadership role, the more it will reinforce ASEAN’s core missions of unity, centrality, and integration.
The climate change statement was a perfect example of that. But there were others. For example, ASEAN Member States recognize that the lessons learned in fighting Ebola in West Africa will pay dividends at home in any future outbreak of infectious diseases in their own region. The nightmares of the SARS and H1N1 outbreaks have not been forgotten and have spurred the region to prevent future health crises. Similarly, ISIL is as much of a clear and present danger to the Asia-Pacific as it is to the world at large, and the countries of the region understand they need to work together to address this threat.
The last 18 months or so have been not been encouraging for democracy within ASEAN, given the Thai coup, heavily disputed elections in Malaysia and Cambodia, and setbacks in Burma’s reforms. What can and should the U.S. do to halt this trend?
The United States has always defended people’s rights to choose their government and the universal human right to freedom of expression. Around the world, we call on governments to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms, consistent with their international obligations. We have many bilateral programs in which we work with countries to strengthen good governance, and at a regional level, we work with ASEAN organizations on key human rights issues like trafficking in persons.
One of the few recent bright spots in regional politics has been Indonesia’s successful election this year. What role can Indonesia and its new President Joko Widodo play as a partner for the United States in the region?
Indonesia is a leader in the Asia-Pacific region. We appreciate former President Yudhoyono’s contribution to regional cooperation, and President Jokowi’s commitment to these same principles. Ambassador Blake and I will work with Indonesia on a variety of regional challenges.
How confident are you that the ASEAN Economic Community can be realized on schedule and what would an AEC mean for Washington’s own Asia-Pacific trade policy?
The goal of establishing an ASEAN Economic Community by December 2015 is an important milestone on the road to ASEAN’s very ambitious goal of deep economic integration among these ten nations of Southeast Asia. It is not a final destination; it is part of a continuing process. The ASEAN countries are already formulating post-2015 plans for further integration.
The AEC is good for ASEAN and it is good for the United States. It has already and will continue to open investment and trade opportunities while reducing tariffs and non-tariff barriers. It is a small world, and the free flow of goods and services lowers prices and increases economic growth. ASEAN integration is also in the strategic interest of the United States. A more unified and central ASEAN will be even more able to foster peace and stability in Southeast Asia.
At your hearing before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations you mentioned China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea. What approach will the U.S. be taking to work with ASEAN on resolving these maritime disputes?
The United States encourages ASEAN and China to make rapid, meaningful, tangible progress toward a Code of Conduct to help reduce tensions arising from territorial and maritime disputes in the South China Sea. We have urged all parties to exercise self-restraint on activities that could complicate or escalate the disputes.
At the East Asia Summit, President Obama reaffirmed the U.S. national interest in the freedom of navigation, unimpeded lawful commerce, peace and stability, and respect for international law in the South China Sea. He stressed that maritime claims should comply with international law and urged the parties to handle their disputes in a peaceful manner, without coercion or the threat or use of force.
As the U.S. Ambassador to ASEAN, what are your personal priorities over the next year?
My first priority has been to listen to the leaders and the people of Southeast Asia to see what they want most from the relationship. There is no substitute for hearing opinions directly.
Our relationship with ASEAN is very important to the United States, and a critical piece of the rebalance. The U.S. Mission to ASEAN, which is still relatively young, continues to grow. There is great potential to work on issues that we all care about. Equitable economic growth that includes women, protecting the oceans and environment, maintaining peace and stability, including in the South China Sea, are all priorities. My team and I will work to build even stronger ties to ASEAN – including among young people. Together we will further our common goals of a unified, central ASEAN and a rules-based, peaceful, prosperous Southeast Asia.