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The New Administration’s Challenge of Engaging Southeast Asia

November 5, 2008

Now that the U.S. presidential election is over, the incoming Obama administration will begin a reconsideration of American foreign policy.  Numerous urgent issues will compete for attention, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea, and the parlous state of the global economy.  But consideration of these urgent matters should not come at the expense of issues that, while perhaps less immediate, are no less important.  One of these is the American relationship with Southeast Asia.

There is a widely shared view, both in Southeast Asia and in the Asian policy community in the U.S., that the United States has been paying insufficient attention to the region. In introducing the Southeast Asia section of the Asia Foundation’s recently-released America’s Role in Asia report at a press conference in Washington last month Tommy Koh, Ambassador-At-Large at Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Chairman of the Institute of Policy Studies, complained that Washington has been treating Southeast Asia with “benign neglect,” perhaps because the region has presented the U.S. with neither significant challenges nor great opportunities.

I’m not sure that the U.S. has completely neglected Southeast Asia, but I agree that our attention to the region has been highly selective.  We focus on some countries more than others, and on some issues more than others.  In particular, we pay attention to the region mainly when bigger issues ” terrorism, the rise of China, avian flu ” make it relevant.  Still, from the Southeast Asian perspective, this selective attention is insufficient, especially when the issues we select are not what Southeast Asians want us to emphasize.

However we diagnose the problem ”  insufficient attention or selective attention ” the solution will have to be more than electing a new president who lived in Indonesia as a child, or new members of Congress who may be more internationalist in their outlook or more knowledgeable about Southeast Asia.  We also need to understand the structural obstacles that prevent the U.S. from treating Southeast Asia as it would like to be treated.  In this regard, the basic problems are that the U.S. has to engage with the region on three different levels simultaneously, and doing so effectively may require more resources than the U.S. presently enjoys.

First, the U.S. must deal with each of the countries of the region bilaterally.  Some say this is a matter of preference, in that the U.S. (like any great power) can find it easier to deal with each member of ASEAN individually than collectively, since it can dominate any particular pairing.  But it is really a matter of necessity.  ASEAN comprises ten very different countries ” at different levels of development, with different political systems, and with different interests and perspectives.  The U.S. must have separate relations with each Southeast Asian country, just as it has separate relations with each member of the EU.

At the same time, the United States also needs to deal with ASEAN as a regional organization that is seeking to develop a unified position on key regional and global issues, and then exert more influence by acting collectively.  But ASEAN’s collective positions are taken largely through consensus, the development which can be a time-consuming process, and whose outcome can be frustrating to the U.S.

In addition, ASEAN seems to be saying that great powers like the United States that want to engage effectively with the organization should sign the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC). This poses a clear dilemma for Washington:  would signing the TAC force the U.S. to accept the legitimacy of the government of Myanmar as a member of ASEAN?  Would acceptance of the principle of non-intervention in internal affairs, which is included in the TAC, prevent the imposition of sanctions against Myanmar for its violations of basic human rights?  Moreover, what would the U.S. get in return?  How would American relations with ASEAN benefit from this gesture?  Would the U.S., for example, be invited to join the East Asian Summit, which ASEAN has recently organized?  And is this something that Washington would really want to do?

The East Asian Summit brings us to the third level at which the U.S. must engage with ASEAN:  the super-regional organizations that ASEAN leads, none of which is as effective as the United States would like.  The general problem is that the Southeast Asian view of these organizations appears to be more process-oriented than results-oriented.  Southeast Asians value these organizations as ways of building personal relationships among leaders and officials, establishing what some call “habits of dialogue,” and gradually producing a sense of regional community.  Americans, by comparison, are more practical and less patient in their outlook:  they ask what the organization has produced, and whether it’s worth the time and effort that participation requires.

Unfortunately, the answer to that question is that most of the ASEAN-led organizations do not appear to be achieving the objectives that the U.S. would like to promote.  The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC) seems to be far from creating a trans-Pacific free trade area of the sort the Bush Administration has endorsed, or even achieving the earlier goal of “freer trade” in the region.  The ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) has neither taken up the tasks of preventive diplomacy or crisis management, nor done much to promote security cooperation on key transnational issues.  Southeast Asian nations want America to pay more attention to these organizations, but the U.S. finds participation to be frustratingly non-productive.  The East Asian Summit is too new to be expected to have achieved many results, but at this point even its agenda remains uncertain.

Thus, engaging with Southeast Asia is a demanding and sometimes frustrating job.  And yet, the United States suffers from a shortage of both organizational resources and policy capabilities.

Take its foreign policy bureaucracy, for example.  Much has been made of the fact that the U.S. government has recently created the position of an ambassador for ASEAN ” the first major power to do so.  But, in fact, no additional personnel line has been created inside the State Department; the title has simply been given to the Deputy Assistant Secretary who is already responsible for Southeast Asia.  Above this position, no one in the State Department has any full-time responsibility for the region.  The same situation is basically repeated in the other key agencies responsible for foreign affairs, like the National Security Council, Department of Defense, and USTR. Nowhere in the US government is Southeast Asia the full-time responsibility of any official above the rank of deputy assistant secretary.  And those higher level officials are preoccupied with issues that are regarded as more urgent (like North Korea) or more important (like Japan and China).

As a result, the US government suffers from a lack of bandwidth in dealing with Southeast Asia.  But organizational bandwidth is not the foreign policy resource in short supply in the United States these days.   The US military ” particularly the army and marines ” is overextended in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The financial crisis, and the economic recession is will almost certainly produce, will place significant constraints on America’s national defense and foreign affairs budgets.  The U.S. will be a less abundant source of capital for Southeast Asia, and a less vital market for the region’s exports ” although a global economic slowdown might mean that America’s economic role in the region will decline only in absolute, but not relative, terms.  If the recession leads to greater protectionism in the US ” an outcome that is not certain, but also cannot be ruled out ” trade in both directions could decline still further.

Although the election of Barack Obama may help restore U.S. prestige in the eyes of many Asians, it will take some time to reverse the overall decline in America’s soft power.  While the election of our first black president has underscored the vitality of America’s political institutions, another key element of our domestic story “a prosperous free economy overseen by effective governmental regulation ” has been significantly undermined by the financial crisis.  And our international story ” as a generous supporter of Third World development, a credible guarantor of international security, and a promoter of free trade ” may also be contradicted by the consequences of the recession.

In short, Southeast Asia is understandably and appropriately asking for greater attention from the United States.  It is asking that American policy not define Southeast Asian countries simply as a counterweight against China (not a role that it wants to highlight), or as partners in the global war on terror (not an issue that it wishes to be the central feature of U.S. policy), or as candidates for free trade agreements with the United States (a status not all can achieve).  Pointing to its importance strategically and economically, Southeast Asia wants the U.S. to pay attention to a wider range of countries and issues.

But engaging with Southeast Asia is not easy, since the U.S. will have to do so on three different levels ” bilateral, regional, and supra regional ” simultaneously.  It will also strain America’s governmental attention span, when other more urgent issues demand attention from top foreign policy officials.   And calls for greater engagement will come up against the reality that, for at least in the near term, the U.S. will be overstretched militarily, constrained financially, and enjoying less soft power than might once have been the case.

The challenge for the U.S. is to conduct a smarter foreign policy, doing more with less.

Harry Harding is a University Professor of International Affairs at The George Washington University and a Trustee of The Asia Foundation. He wrote “China Policy for the Next U.S. Administration,” a chapter in The Asia Foundation’s newly-released “America’s Role in Asia,” and recently attended a Thai-US Think Tank Summit in Bangkok where he spoke on the U.S.-Southeast Asia relationship.

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