The United States is set to elevate its relationship with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) by inking a new strategic partnership following upcoming U.S.-ASEAN consultations in Kuala Lumpur this weekend, sources confirmed to The Diplomat this week.
The Obama administration has already significantly boosted U.S. commitment to ASEAN during its tenure, including by appointing the first U.S. resident ambassador to Jakarta and instituting an annual summit between the president and ASEAN leaders. But elevating U.S.-ASEAN ties to a strategic partnership would cap these achievements as U.S. President Barack Obama moves into his last year in office and ASEAN prepares to launch a new community by the end of the year.
Conversations about a U.S.-ASEAN strategic partnership have been going on for years, and actual negotiations on the specifics have been occurring for most of 2015 (See: “US-ASEAN Relations: Advances Made But Challenges Remain”). While U.S. officials had confirmed following the 28th ASEAN-U.S. Dialogue in Washington, D.C. in May that both sides were working towards the “elevation” of the U.S.-ASEAN relationship to a strategic partnership in time for the East Asia Summit (EAS) in November, few other specifics were disclosed up to this point.
“We’re now ready to take our relationship with ASEAN to the next level,” U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel had told reporters in a briefing last week ahead of Obama’s trip to the Philippines for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit and Malaysia for U.S.-ASEAN and East Asia Summit (EAS) meetings this weekend. Malaysia is hosting these deliberations as this year’s holder of the ASEAN chair which rotates annually.
Officials now say the details have been finalized and the new pact will be signed and publicly released following U.S.-ASEAN consultations in Kuala Lumpur this weekend as both sides had intended.
The strategic partnership, The Diplomat understands, will lay out the way forward for U.S.-ASEAN relations over the next five years, spelling out a plan of action to deepen the relationship as well as priority areas for cooperation not just between the two sides, but also on regional, global and transnational issues. While the United States and ASEAN have already been working on several pressing matters in their consultations – from illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing and trafficking to climate change – the pact would provide both a structural foundation as well as a list of specific ways through which both sides can advance cooperation.
“We see it as a way to both structure and deepen that future cooperation,” a U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity told The Diplomat.
Apart from advancing cooperation, U.S. officials have also stressed that the strategic partnership is also a well-timed opportunity to “lock in” administration efforts thus far before beginning a new phase of U.S.-ASEAN relations, with ASEAN itself also looking towards a post-2015 vision with the formation of an ASEAN Community by the end of this year under Malaysia’s chairmanship.
“This is as much about codifying what we have already done as much as it is about taking our relationship to the next level,” the official emphasized.
As I have noted elsewhere, the Obama administration has placed significant emphasis on institutionalizing gains in its Asia policy so they will last beyond its tenure, including through the use of strategic and comprehensive partnerships.