Insights and Analysis

Strengthening U.S.-ASEAN Ties

July 22, 2009

By John J. Brandon

Today, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attends the ASEAN Regional Forum in Phuket, Thailand. Established in 1994, the forum is an official, multilateral dialogue of 27 countries to address peace and security issues in the Asia-Pacific region. ASEAN realized if it was to remain relevant in the post-Cold War era, it would need to ensure that it could contribute positively to Asia-Pacific security discourse and that ASEAN would be part of all Asia-Pacific security deliberations. In this regard ASEAN has been successful, but its critics charge that the dialogue has failed to move beyond just talking about security challenges to actually taking collective action in addressing them.

Since Barack Obama’s inauguration in January, the U.S. has signaled a distinct change in the U.S. approach toward Asia, attaching more importance to multilateral groupings like this one in Phuket, rather than pursuing the previous administration’s emphasis on bilateral diplomacy. And Secretary Clinton is doing more than just showing up. She is signing ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), making the U.S. the last extra-regional power to do so. Signing the TAC signals to Southeast Asia that the Obama administration wants to work more closely with ASEAN and help the region to realize its recently-promulgated ASEAN Charter, which includes the promotion of good governance, rule of law, and protection of human rights.

Two problems that thus far no multilateral institution has been able to address effectively are Burma (also known as Myanmar) and North Korea. Both issues will be addressed at the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). Both nations have abhorrent human rights records. Burma’s generals remain steadfast in wanting to push ahead with their so called “map to democracy,” which appears to hold as their only objective to legitimize their hold on power and neutralize Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy as a political force. North Korea’s multiple missile tests in May and July illustrate that the country is undeterred in pursuing nuclear ambitions in defiance of a United Nations resolution. Progress on either of these issues is not expected in Phuket.

But other issues of a transnational nature are areas where the forum can make some headway in moving beyond a confidence-building stage toward collective action. In May, the U.S. and the Philippines co-sponsored an ARF Voluntary Demonstration of Response in the Philippines. This was the first-ever field exercise for ARF where, following a hypothetical super-typhoon, 20 ARF member countries participated in and/or offered assistance to the Philippine government for international humanitarian relief – from land, air, and maritime search and rescue, to medical assistance, evacuation, and engineering reconstruction. It is as important that the U.S. supports ARF in strengthening the region’s humanitarian response as it is in its commitments to regional security cooperation. As climate change threatens a region that has seen natural disasters and pandemic diseases occurring with greater regularity, Southeast Asia has shown it is not well prepared to cope with complex humanitarian emergencies. In addition to disaster preparedness, ARF’s greatest success may come from its members working together on other transnational challenges such as energy security, food and water security, global warming, and pandemic disease surveillance. The ARF is the most useful forum where the U.S. can play a supportive role in helping to build the capacity of Southeast Asian nations in such areas.

Southeast Asia is now receiving more attention from the U.S. than it has in the past. Signing the TAC clearly shows the U.S. respects a growing desire in ASEAN, and in the Asia-Pacific region more broadly, to forge a regional identity. But the U.S. and ASEAN nations must go beyond symbolism and cultivate a deeper, more meaningful relationship. Constructively addressing transnational challenges involving the other members of the ASEAN Regional Forum is one concrete way to work toward this end.

John J. Brandon is The Asia Foundation’s Director of International Relations Programs. He can be reached at [email protected].


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