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ASEAN at 50: Walking a Tightrope?

August 9, 2017

By John J. Brandon

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and, in this past May, the 40th anniversary of the United States being a dialogue partner with ASEAN.


ASEAN is the number one destination for U.S. direct investment in Asia at $274 billion, more than U.S. investment to China, India, Japan, and South Korea combined. Photo Flickr user/

Under the Obama administration, many in the Asia region appreciated the substantial gains made in U.S.-ASEAN relations, with its greater emphasis on multilateralism in the effort to foster a rules-based regional order. The United States signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), joined the East Asia Summit (EAS) and ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting (ADMM) Plus, and institutionalized the U.S.-ASEAN Summit by holding the first on U.S. soil in Sunnylands, California, in February 2016. But Asia’s evolving architecture, including ASEAN’s position therein, hinges on how any U.S. president manages America’s relations with China. With the withdrawal of the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and a greater emphasis by President Trump on bilateralism, what does this portend for U.S. policy toward Southeast Asia and its relations with the region?

Throughout the past four decades, U.S. foreign policy toward Southeast Asia has at times been considered episodic, inconsistent, and devoid of strategic context. In essence, a region treated with “benign neglect” or “indifference.” But despite such criticism, the U.S. has been and remains the most consequential security guarantor for Southeast Asia and the Asia-Pacific more broadly. The U.S. and ASEAN nations coordinate on issues ranging from maritime security, counter-terrorism and anti-trafficking of humans, narcotics, and wildlife, to disaster risk management, governance, and nuclear non-proliferation. Economically, two-way trade in 2016 totaled $273 billion, supporting more than 500,000 jobs in the United States. ASEAN is the number one destination for U.S. direct investment in Asia at $274 billion, more than U.S. investment to China, India, Japan, and South Korea combined.

But there is a sense in Southeast Asia today that the region is feeling somewhat anxious and uncertain. Challenges facing the U.S., which include budget deficits, instability in the Middle East, a war in Afghanistan, and the implications of President Trump’s “America First” policy, are raising questions about the reliability of a committed U.S. strategy toward Southeast Asia.

Likewise, ASEAN finds itself in a similar predicament. Although ASEAN member states want increased U.S. engagement and leadership, there is no shared, coherent consensus on what U.S. engagement and leadership in the region should look like. In fact, ASEAN at 50 is finding itself walking a tightrope between the U.S. and China.

To be sure, Southeast Asian nations want the U.S. to deepen its engagement in the region. But while the U.S. appears to lack an overarching strategy that connects economic and strategic goals, China is just the opposite. Over the past few years, China has initiated and created the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to help build and finance Southeast Asia’s infrastructure needs while launching the ASEAN-China Free Trade Area and joining ASEAN’s Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). These initiatives and programs are effectively linking China’s political-security cooperation with economic cooperation in Southeast Asia as well as creating a strong gravitational pull on ASEAN member states.

The region wants an economically engaged, but not dominant, China, and it wants the U.S. to remain the region’s security guarantor. Clearly, friction between Washington and Beijing will not facilitate a productive U.S.-China dynamic in Southeast Asia. The key to a peaceful, prosperous Asia is good relations between the U.S. and China.

As U.S. policy evolves under the Trump administration, a productive policy would continue to promote ASEAN as the “fulcrum of Asian regional architecture.” U.S. policy toward Southeast Asia must not become a subset of a China-centric policy, but needs to be linked to a broader U.S. strategy. For the U.S. to best advance its political, economic, and security interests in Southeast Asia, it needs to work with ASEAN to secure vital sea-lanes, combat transnational threats, and to foster policies that allow the U.S. to benefit from the region’s economic growth. Failure to do this will lead to less order and stability in the Asia-Pacific, not more.

John J. Brandon is senior director for The Asia Foundation’s International Relations programs in Washington, D.C. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.

1 Comment

  1. Great article. Fundamentally any US administration (or indeed any foreign government) will look to act to protect and enhance its own interests. The hope is that what is seen as the US’s best interests is countries and governments moving towards greater openness and transparency. Hopefully history shows that a greater emphasis on multilateralism enables, in time, the difficult issues to be dealt with appropriately.

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