In The News

U.S.-ASEAN Relations Mature, but Pitfalls Abound

January 30, 2013

For Southeast Asia, 2012 brought both challenges and opportunities to the region – from Cambodia’s chairmanship of ASEAN and further political opening in Burma (also known as Myanmar) to tensions in the South China Sea and the adoption of the ASEAN Declaration of Human Rights (ADHR). But, despite these ups and downs, U.S.-Southeast Asia relations continued to expand and deepen last year.

On his first trip overseas after being reelected, President Obama visited Southeast Asia, where he made history as the first sitting U.S. president to have ever visited Burma and Cambodia. Commemorating 180 years of uninterrupted diplomatic ties, he also visited Thailand. President Obama’s visit to Southeast Asia underscored his commitment to the U.S. strategic “rebalancing” to the Asia-Pacific. The dynamic of this “rebalance” is to downsize the U.S. presence in the Middle East and Afghanistan, and to invest more and pay greater attention to the Asia-Pacific, particularly Southeast Asia. However, given recent violent extremism in Mali and the international hostage crisis ending in bloodshed in Algeria, coupled with the U.S. budgetary constraints and its impact on defense, accomplishing this rebalancing may become a more difficult challenge.

One criticism of the rebalance is that it heavily emphasizes the security aspect of the relationship while not paying greater attention on expanding U.S. trade and investment with the region. With tensions on the rise in the South China Sea, the U.S. has enhanced its military ties with the Philippines and Vietnam. While the U.S. says it does not take sides in maritime territorial disputes, outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said that the U.S. has a “national interest” in the freedom of navigation across the western Pacific, including the South China Sea. U.S. officials continue to emphasize to ASEAN nations that the best way to resolve territorial disputes is to develop a formal Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. This has created fears among some in the region that the U.S. may be pursuing a “containment” strategy toward China.

Burma has made remarkable gains over the past year toward greater political liberalization: almost 2,000 political prisoners have been released, peaceful demonstrations have been allowed, and press censorship has been abolished. In addition, ceasefires with most minority groups have commenced and economic sanctions have been suspended, but not lifted, as challenges persist; most notably current fighting between Myanmar’s army and Kachin rebels as well as sectarian clashes in Rakhine state that have left 180 people dead and more than 110,000 displaced since June. National reconciliation is the most critical challenge if Burma is to achieve long-term stability and genuine democratization. Meanwhile, in the Southern Philippines, the signing of the Framework Agreement on Bangsamoro between the government of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) looks to cease hostilities where 150,000 people have been killed over the past 40 years.

One of the outcomes around the East Asia Summit held in Phnom Penh in November was the adoption of the ADHR by the 10-member states. While ASEAN hailed it as a “landmark development,” civil society and human rights organizations in the region and globally expressed disappointment that some of the principles and articles in the declaration could erode universal human rights and fundamental freedoms. NGOs particularly objected to the provision that rights could be restricted on the grounds of “national security” and that such rights must be “balanced” subject to “national and regional contexts and different cultural, religious, and historical backgrounds.”  As the ADHR is a declaration, and not a convention, the document is not legally binding. Like many ASEAN declarations, the ADHR seems to be more about aspirations rather than commitments. Taken in this context, it could be viewed as a first step toward greater protection of human rights in the region rather than an end in itself.

To counter criticism that the U.S. was over-emphasizing security in rebalancing its policy in the region, the U.S. announced in Phnom Penh the U.S.-ASEAN Expanded Economic Engagement Initiative (E3 Initiative), designed to expand trade and investment ties and business opportunities among all 11 countries. The E3 Initiative will lay the groundwork for ASEAN countries to adhere to the high standards found in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which the U.S. is negotiating with four ASEAN states (Brunei, Singapore, Vietnam, and Malaysia). ASEAN is the U.S.’s fourth-largest export market and fifth-largest trading partner. The TPP is the U.S.’s effort to keep pace with the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership that includes all 10 members of ASEAN and other countries in the region, including China and India. The U.S. is also trying to increase its “soft power” through scholar exchanges such as the new U.S.-ASEAN Fulbright Initiative and increasing its foreign assistance by 17 percent to Southeast Asia, with much of this assistance going to Burma.

Despite foreign policy challenges in the Middle East, western Africa, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, the U.S. will continue to sustain and expand its relations with Southeast Asia, particularly through ASEAN. But ASEAN’s centrality is being challenged, in part because the grouping’s practice of making decisions on the basis of consensus among the member states is seen as limiting its effectiveness. Both China and the U.S. have significant interests in Southeast Asia. ASEAN nations value its economic relations with both countries and none want to see any extra-regional power become dominant, and thus do not want to be put into the position of having to choose between China and the U.S. For this not to happen, a more stable U.S.-China relationship will be required.

John J. Brandon is director of Regional Cooperation Programs for The Asia Foundation in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at jbrandon@asiafound-dc.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not necessarily those of The Asia Foundation.

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