In The News

Boom Times in U.S.-Southeast Asia Relations

October 27, 2010

These are boom times in U.S.-Southeast Asia relations. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton represents the United States at the 17th ASEAN Summit this week in Hanoi – the highlight of which is to be U.S. participation, for the first time ever, in the East Asia Summit (EAS). Secretary Clinton is also expected to travel to Cambodia and Malaysia, and possibly elsewhere in the region, after the ASEAN and EAS meetings. President Obama will himself travel to the area when he makes a much-anticipated trip to Indonesia during a swing through Asia to include visits to India, South Korea (for the G20 gathering), and Japan (for APEC).

All of this upcoming attention to Southeast Asia caps a stunning two years of activity in the region, including the first-ever visit by a U.S. secretary of state to the ASEAN secretariat, the U.S. signing of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), appointment of a resident ASEAN ambassador (to be named),and the holding of two U.S.-ASEAN Leaders Summits (the second of which was held last month for the first time in the U.S.). Combined with an announced policy of engagement with Burma, the declaration of a Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI), and a clear statement on U.S. interests in the South China Sea in July, it is fair to say that never has the U.S. been so peacefully, fully, and visibly active in the Southeast Asia region.

These immediate developments are just a manifestation of deeper, more structural trends in evolving U.S.-Southeast Asia relations; trends that nonetheless bear noting. First, the U.S. is now unambiguously supportive of ASEAN as an institution. Earlier debates about whether to sign the TAC, appoint an ambassador to ASEAN, or hold a meeting with the member-country leaders have been mostly overcome. Simultaneously, a number of activities among officials are taking place to put “meat on the bones” of U.S.-ASEAN interaction. There is already a huge mutual stake in relations between the U.S. and Southeast Asia. As the new East-West Center initiative “ASEAN Matters for America” demonstrates, the subregion has two U.S. treaty allies (Thailand and the Philippines) and one critical security partner (Singapore), and accounts for the largest total stock of U.S. foreign direct investment (FDI) in Asia (and the fourth largest source of FDI into the U.S.). The region ranks among the United States’ top 10 trading partners; has among the fastest rates of U.S. exports growth; sends 40,000 students each year to the U.S. who generate nearly a $1 billion to the U.S. economy; accounts for about a third of all Americans born in Asia; and hosts some 60 sister-city and other local civic exchange relationships.

A second emerging trend is that for the first time in nearly a generation the U.S. is robustly engaged with every country in the region – even if in some cases, as with Burma, the emerging relationship is still very fragile and problematic. No longer does the U.S. deal primarily with countries that are called maritime Southeast Asia. In putting aside the legacies of the past, including the Vietnam War, which did so much to constrain ties over the past three decades with Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, the U.S. and regional countries are forging ahead to create a new era in ties. This is not to say that ties will not be difficult; as with all relationships, there are issues that need care and time to work through. But what is undeniable is that both the U.S. and regional countries are making a commitment to move relations forward. To better understand the problems that confront these new relationships and the prospects for how far and fast improvement can go, the East-West Center, in cooperation with Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS), has produced a special issue of the ISEAS journal Contemporary Southeast Asia to be published in December, that examines five major, developing U.S.-Southeast Asian bilateral relationships (Burma, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam).

A final underlying trend buttressing the new focus of the U.S. on Southeast Asia is the changes in the broader region and globally. Indeed, the revived U.S. engagement with Southeast Asia flows not only from specific interests with each regional country and with ASEAN’s potential to help create a more cohesive, integrated, and therefore resilient region, but also the rise of new players in Southeast Asia and the growing role and potential of some key Southeast Asian states at the global level. Official U.S. policy documents have squarely identified how major Southeast Asian states can contribute to addressing global challenges. In order to understand how key Southeast Asian countries’ interests are evolving in ways that bring them into greater relationships with wider regional and global countries and organizations, the East-West Center organized a series of analyses in the journal Global Asia under the theme of “In the National Interest: Economics, Security and Foreign Affairs in Southeast Asia.” As I wrote in the cover piece, “across a range of economic, politico-security and multilateral interests, each of these countries has reasons to have more partners in more regions and membership in more organizations.” As a result, a strong U.S. engagement with Southeast Asia can be expected to grow in the context of wider Asia and the world. This makes the current boom time in U.S.-Southeast Asia relations just the start of a potentially important new era in relations.

Satu Limaye, who guest blogs this week on the occasion of the 17th ASEAN summit in Hanoi, is the director of the East-West Center in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at limayes@eastwestcenter.org.

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