President Obama Engages Southeast Asia

By Ernest Bower

On November 15, 2009, President Obama will meet the 10 leads of the member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in the first ever U.S.-ASEAN Summit. ASEAN includes Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar (Burma), the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. Together, these countries include two U.S. treaty allies (the Philippines and Thailand) and the world's busiest trading route-the Strait of Malacca. ASEAN is the world's most trade-dependent formal grouping of nations, with trade accounting for nearly 100 percent of its $1.3-trillion gross domestic product. It is also the fifth-largest trading partner of the United States and home to 650 million people. This Critical Questions touches on key issues related the inaugural U.S.-ASEAN Summit.

 

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 Is the summit a signal of a new level of U.S. engagement in Southeast Asia?

The U.S.-ASEAN Summit represents a historic new level of engagement for the United States with ASEAN. The significance of the summit is the fact that the U.S. president is in ASEAN, is following through on his administration's early commitments to engage the region in a serious and sustained way, and for the first time is sitting down with all 10 of the ASEAN leaders, including Burma's prime minister. This is an important diplomatic step forward. In the event, the United States will break free of its self-imposed trap of letting the Burma tail wag the ASEAN dog. In other words, President Obama recognizes that ASEAN is vitally important to the United States in terms of national security, trade, as well as socially and culturally. And while the situation in Burma remains untenable, the United States is saying "we cannot let one issue, Burma, keep us from deepening ties with our ASEAN counterparts and working with them to strengthen relationships and trying to make progress in Burma as well as other areas."


What do you expect to come out of this meeting?

The key outcome is that President Obama will now have a direct link with ASEAN leaders who can and want to deepen ties with the United States. Do not expect major new headlines out of this meeting; there is no major announcement or initiative coming. This is an important initial meeting that will open the channels for more substantive discussion among government officials from all countries on how they can deepen cooperation in areas such as trade, education, health care and life sciences, counterterrorism, and military-to-military training.

Has the United States decided to "go soft" on Burma? What is the shift in U.S. policy on Myanmar?

As he wrapped up his visit to Burma last week, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell was very careful to make it clear that the new U.S. policy of engagement would in no way let Burma off the hook or give the ruling junta a pass on implementing reforms. He confirmed that U.S. sanctions will remain in place and will not be lifted unless there is significant progress on political reform. The stick is still very much part of U.S. policy, but now there may be room for some carrot if the Burmese leadership can make progress in key areas, especially around the elections planned for 2010.

Is the summit part of the competing proposals for a new regional architecture such as ASEAN + 3, Asia-Pacific Community, East Asia Summit? Could the United States be sidelined if excluded from a new Asian grouping?

The fundamental reality is that the United States must stay engaged in Asia, and therefore it must be part of any regional architecture that is going to succeed and be sustained. The U.S.-ASEAN Summit is important in that context. ASEAN conducts separate summits with China, Japan, and Korea and an ASEAN + 3 Summit with all of those countries. At these meetings, important channels are forged. Leaders get to know one another and build trust. Influence follows. Therefore, it is important for the United States to remain engaged at a comparable level. The Obama administration has made important strides in this direction with ASEAN-joining the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) earlier this year and through Secretary of State Clinton making her third trip to the region in her first year in office this month.

East Asian economic integration is inevitable and is happening with or without governments, who are catching up with commercial realities. The good news is that the United States is already inextricably linked to that reality. American companies are a vital part, if not the largest part, of the commercial pulmonary system that keeps Asia's business blood pumping in such a dynamic and healthy way. From a national security point of view, a structure excluding the United States will be unbalanced and cannot be supported by realistic and forward-looking governments. This is the challenge for APEC or an expanded East Asia Summit (that would include the United States)-the agenda must catch up with the existing level of integration and codependence across the Asia Pacific.

Will the United States and ASEAN address issues related to China's emergence as a major power-such as the Spratleys and the South China Sea?

Over the last decade, China took advantage of the U.S. preoccupation with security issues at home and fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to expand its power in Southeast Asia. It has been very effective in this effort, expanding trade, investment, and tourism and turning the page on a new chapter of nuanced diplomacy that is much more effective than the ideological and rigid posture it assumed earlier. However, the ASEAN countries are interested in ensuring a careful balance between major powers, particularly China given its proximity. For the most part, one would be hard pressed to imagine a more benign process for China's emergence on the world and regional stage than what we have witnessed over the last 10 years. Chinese domestic policies aside, its regional role has been largely positive, providing investment, a new and growing market for exports, tourists, and expanding Asia's heft in global organizations. An important exception is the South China Sea where Chinese rhetoric has been old school and ideological. Its approach has alarmed Vietnam and to a lesser extent the Philippines. Chinese foreign policy has hoped to divide ASEAN on this critical issue, using aid, investment, and other forms of engagement to try to ensure that more needy ASEAN countries such as Laos, Cambodia, and Burma do not support a unified stance on issues related to the Spratleys and the South China Sea. The United States and ASEAN will likely discuss these issues during the summit, not in the context of confronting China, but through areas such as strengthening education on international maritime law and expanded training opportunities.

Ernest Bower is director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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