Insights and Analysis

A Conversation with First Resident U.S. Ambassador to ASEAN

May 29, 2013

David CardenIn Asia editor Alma Freeman caught up with David Carden, the first resident U.S. Ambassador to ASEAN based in Jakarta, on a recent visit to The Asia Foundation in San Francisco, to discuss ASEAN connectivity, U.S.-ASEAN relations, and looking ahead to a 2015 ASEAN Economic Community. Read full interview below.

Last year marked The 35th Anniversary of ASEAN-U.S. Relations. How is the relationship now?

While it’s true that the U.S. has been engaged with ASEAN for over 35 years, it’s also true that it was in many respects a different ASEAN. Initially it was five countries, it’s now ten. It’s also true that in those early years the challenges facing ASEAN and the opportunities it had were different than they are now. As the organization has matured, there have been additional opportunities for dialogue partners such as the United States to engage and support, and that is something that is accelerating now fairly rapidly.

What message does it deliver to Southeast Asia that you are the first ever resident ambassador ASEAN?

I have been very well received in the region, and I have found no exception to that. So, I believe that what we are bringing to the regional conversation is thought to be desirable. The ASEANs are of course aware of the breadth of our engagement, even if the public is not. And they understand that the U.S. is a positive force for helping them manage some of the most difficult problems. And also, a positive force in helping them realize some of the opportunities that exist on the economic front, and managing health issues like pandemics and disasters.

What is most important about engagement with ASEAN?

The reality is that there are all kinds of people with deep expertise in different areas – both dialogue partners and other nations who aren’t dialogue partners – that contribute guidance and financial support to ASEAN. But the interesting question is: Why are they? Some people might think it’s all about containing China, or about soft power influence in the region. The reality is that we are increasingly interdependent on systemic issues like pandemics and food and water security. Today’s pandemic in Asia is in New York tomorrow. A pandemic is in fact a security risk: there are three days of food on the supermarkets of the world. Do you think people are going to start delivering food on their trucks if there is H5N1 in the town?  Food and water security is ultimately an international issue. There is a web of things upon which we rely that could be disrupted terribly. What has become increasingly more prevalent is the need to manage the connections among us, rather than the rules that apply within each of us.

You spoke a lot about connectivity among ASEAN countries.

The ASEANs are aware of the areas of connectivity. What’s typically been meant by that is around infrastructure. But there needs to be a different approach to realize the benefits of those connections. What do you need to do to make the connections work? Some are obvious – in the economic community, you need trade facilitation that removes tariff and non-tariff barriers that speeds up the movement of goods. But some aren’t so obvious: for example, I would suggest that one of ASEANs biggest needs is to empower its citizens. That is an asset that the ASEANs need to realize fully in order to accomplish the future they have set for themselves, to which they aspire. You can’t in my view actually empower your people to the extent that’s necessary unless you pay attention to not only education, but also to their health, their well-being, their safety. The connections that I’m talking about are well known, but the way that you remove the impediments to reaching the benefits that these connections can bring is still a challenge.

Can you talk about your ideas for an “ASEAN virtual library,” and how it can help improve access to information?  

I have found that throughout the region there seems to be a lack of imagination at finding a space for young people at the discussion table. They cannot always have speaking roles, but there’s no reason that they shouldn’t have observer status so that they can become invested in the kinds of aspirations that ASEAN has stated for itself. So far, that has been a missed opportunity in some ways. But these young people need information upon which to act, to be responsible participants in the discussions. And they are capable of accessing information now through the internet in ways that is encouraging so that they will become more informed and make better decisions, which brings me to the virtual library. For about a year and a half, I’ve been trying to get universities in the region interested in hosting a database that will be organized around issues that are easily identified, and relate to the ASEAN agenda, although they could relate to any one country’s agenda as well – from food security and fisheries and water security – on the current thinking on these issues that would be an online resource for legislators and policy-makers, think tanks, journalists, bloggers, young people, the curious. This would allow them to be better informed and participate in helping make better decisions. I just recently spoke to a group of Indonesian bloggers, and my charge to them was that you have an obligation to get it right. It’s more than thinking aloud, we need your input, and you need to be informed. I think that if we could get ASEAN friends to support it, we could get universities around the world to get behind it as well.

As the 2015 goal of an ASEAN Economic Community approaches, what are the major challenges ahead?

I think the major challenge exists in ASEAN’s path forward. The ASEANs have to own these conversations; they have to put resources in them, and ultimately have to accept the responsibility to act in a lot of settings where they have had support in the past. That is going to require political will and resources – I don’t know that that will be a challenge so much as it will be a transition period where they will need to step up in ways that they are not in a position to do right now.

I do believe that the U.S. is in Southeast Asia to stay, for all the reasons I’ve suggested, and given the connections that exist in the world, we can’t afford not to be. The ASEANs are concerned that we are distracted by outside events, but all the while, we were always engaged in Southeast Asia. There’s two and a half times more foreign direct investment in ASEAN than there is in China from the U.S. People always want to talk about trade, but as the former ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan would often ask, why do we always want to talk about trade, why don’t we talk more about investment? The challenge will be for ASEAN to take on more and more responsibility for engagement. For example, the ASEANs want the dialogue partners to assist with infrastructure development. I understand why they do, and it’s critical. But it’s also true that with a more viable tax policy in the region, they would be in a better position to finance and fund more of their own infrastructure development. Now, taxes are hard to get right, but the failure to do that is something that will impact their long-term economic health and the empowerment of their people.


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