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ASEAN Summit Promises First-Ever Full U.S. Engagement

November 11, 2009

On November 15, after the APEC Leaders meeting, President Barack Obama will meet with the leaders of all 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for the first-ever U.S.-ASEAN summit. For the past 12 years, both the Clinton and Bush administrations resisted calls for a U.S.-ASEAN summit over concern that because Burma is a member of ASEAN, such a summit would amount to acceptance of bilateral talks with Burma. The Obama Administration has said they are not going to punish the other nine ASEAN members simply because Burma is in the room, and has been careful to say this is not a bilateral. Since taking office in January, the Obama administration has shown from the start that it wishes to engage Southeast Asia in a more comprehensive manner, through ASEAN, rather than as a set of 10 bilateral relationships. This is both significant and welcome.

When visiting Indonesia in February on her first trip overseas as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton visited the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta; the first time a U.S. Secretary of State ever visited the Secretariat in ASEAN’s 42-year history. She followed up on this visit by signing on behalf of the United States the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) in Thailand in July. This came at a time when the Obama administration was conducting its policy review of Burma in an effort to encourage Burma’s generals to foster political liberalization, human rights, and humanitarian assistance. While U.S. sanctions will (and should) remain in place toward Burma –one of the world’s poorest nations outside of sub-Saharan Africa – until positive developments take place in that nation, it is important that the U.S. is now willing to meet with all 10 ASEAN members.

For the past 20 years, many in Southeast Asia have said the U.S. treated the region with “benign neglect” or indifference. During this time, China deepened its own links across the region. By 1991, China established diplomatic relations with all 10 ASEAN members and has engaged in a set of multilateral dialogues with ASEAN countries, including the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and APEC. China also participates in ASEAN + 3 and the East Asia Summit, two dialogues in which the U.S. does not participate. In addition, China has seen its trade with ASEAN countries expand exponentially – from $8 billion in 1991 to $207 billion in 2008. In comparison, U.S. trade with Southeast Asia in 2008 totaled $177 billion. 2007 marked the first time Southeast Asia’s trade was larger with any nation other than the U.S. since 1873, when Ulysses S. Grant was president.

Some in Washington are concerned that the U.S. could be eclipsed as a major player in Asia. However, both the U.S. and China have legitimate interests in Southeast Asia and influence in the region should not be viewed as a zero-sum game. It would be imprudent for any administration to put Southeast Asians in a position of having to choose between the U.S. and China or the U.S. or any other power. A far better approach would be for the U.S. to strengthen the functioning of its own democracy and economy, thereby setting an example to Southeast Asians and others around the world.

The U.S.-ASEAN summit this weekend will largely be symbolic. But important, nonetheless, as it leaves a strong political signature and illustrates that the U.S. values Southeast Asia and ASEAN as a regional organization. Hopefully, this first-ever summit will be institutionalized and held annually. While symbolism has its utility, there ultimately must be substance. There are urgent issues at hand and President Obama should seize this opportunity. The U.S. and ASEAN need to work together to constructively address transnational challenges – from food and water security, climate change, and energy security, to natural disaster preparedness and pandemic disease surveillance. For instance, 80 percent of 575 million Southeast Asians live 65 miles or less from coastal waters and the region’s sea level is expected to rise 27 inches before the end of this century. President Obama’s presence at ASEAN’s table, to hold open, constructive dialogue, will help ensure peace, stability, and economic prosperity in Southeast Asia as well as U.S. interests in this important region of the world.

John J. Brandon is The Asia Foundation’s Director of International Relations Programs in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at jbrandon@asiafound-dc.org.

One comment on this post:

  1. [...] in U.S.-ASEAN relations. The meeting is only two hours long, but that is 30 minutes more than the first summit held on the sidelines of the APEC leaders meeting in Singapore last year. There are many [...]

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