Insights and Analysis

ASEAN: Is There Life After 40?

July 25, 2007

By John J. Brandon

The Bush Administration recently announced that it will cancel this September’s U.S. “Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN) summit. ASEAN is celebrating its 40th year, and the U.S.-ASEAN dialogue is celebrating its 30th. The cancellation of this landmark summit was due to the upcoming release of the report card on the American surge in Iraq to the U.S. Congress, slated for the same time. Although Iraq is the U.S.’s principal foreign policy issue, to Southeast Asians, this summit cancellation validates the perception that the U.S. views Southeast Asia with benign neglect and lacks a long-term strategy toward the region.

When ASEAN was founded in August, 1967, Southeast Asia (like Iraq today) was the cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy, given our involvement in the Vietnam War. Its five original members ” Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand ” were the region’s anti-communist bloc. Created in the wake of Indonesia’s “konfrontasi” (confrontation) policy towards Malaysia with the objective of placing regional reconciliation within an institutionalized structure of relations, ASEAN formally set out to promote regional economic and social cooperation.

After several decades, the U.S. still has enduring interests in Southeast Asia. With a population of 535 million, the region has a collective gross domestic product of more than $800 billion, growing in recent years at a highly respectable ” if not spectacular ” five to six percent per annum. American commercial interests are substantial as trade with ASEAN nations in 2006 amounted to more than $170 billion, making Southeast Asia the U.S.’s fourth largest trading partner and the third largest export market. Southeast Asia imports twice as many American goods as China does; U.S. investment in Southeast Asia totals almost $100 billion.

In looking for models of democratization in the Muslim world, there are substantial lessons to be gained by ASEAN-member Indonesia, the world’s largest democracy with a majority Muslim population. Since the fall of President Suharto in 1998, Indonesia has transitioned to free and fair elections and a radical decentralization effort to give more influence to local governments, as well as a free and open media. Indonesia’s challenge is how to consolidate these democratic gains and combine them with economic reforms to spur greater, sustained prosperity.

ASEAN nations, on balance, have also done well in their efforts to combat terrorism in the region. Since September 11, 2001, the region has figured more prominently in U.S. foreign policy than at any time since the end of the Vietnam War. U.S. policymakers declared Southeast Asia to be “the second front” in the global war against terrorism; the 2002 and 2005 Bali bombings and other terrorist attacks in Indonesia and the Philippines confirmed assumptions of al-Qaeda’s widening range and its common cause with regional extremist networks. However, since 2003, more than 200 suspected Islamic militants have been captured or killed in Indonesia. The leader of Jamaah Islamiyah (the regional affiliate of al-Qaeda), Hambli, was captured in Thailand in 2004.

Despite these concentrated efforts, many Southeast Asians are frustrated that the U.S. is so narrowly focused on the war on terror, which makes them question whether the U.S. can remain committed to the region as a whole.

ASEAN is now the oldest regional organization in Asia, and by most accounts, its most successful one. Over the past 20 years, ASEAN has been able to spark new regional initiatives: the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Forum whose countries represent 56 percent of global domestic product; the ASEAN Regional Forum (the 26 member political and security roundtable that, in addition to the ASEAN nations, includes China, Japan, India, and Russia); and most recently, the East Asia Summit (EAS), which is attempting to integrate the region, though its purpose and direction are at times unclear. In addition, there is a network of dialogues that cover ASEAN’s relations with other nations outside Asia, including the U.S.-ASEAN Dialogue which President Bush recently canceled.

ASEAN, after the European Union, is probably the world’s most vibrant regional organization. At a time when America’s friendships in the region are questionable due to its policy in Iraq, the United States must think twice about missing opportunities to show Southeast Asians that the U.S. views it more as a place to eliminate terrorist plots.

John J. Brandon is Director of International Relations at The Asia Foundation.


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