The Futures of Southeast Asia and the US Intertwine

By Vannarith Chheang   

The important role of ASEAN in regional security has already been realised by the world, particularly by the United States. Vannarith Chheang emphasises that more than regional security, the US must recognise ASEAN’s crucial role in the economic realm.

ASEAN member countries are concerned about US’s commitment in Asia amid changing global geopolitics. The US is reorienting its foreign policy by focusing more narrowly on the American interest under the motto “America First”– which is characterised by transactionalism, unilateralism, and bilateralism.

The US’s decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) creates a wave of economic and strategic uncertainty across Asia. This also largely affects strategic credibility and moral legitimacy of the US.

Without clear strategy and concrete action plans towards Asia, particularly ASEAN, the US will lose its strategic leverage and influence in the region, which in turn will hurt the US’s core regional interests.

There are signs of relief after the visit by Vice-President Mike Pence to Indonesia and the ASEAN Secretariat to reassure ASEAN that the US remains committed to the region. Pence also confirmed that President Donald Trump will attend East Asia Summit (EAS) and ASEAN-US Summit in November.

Trump called the Philippine President in capacity as the chair of ASEAN after the 30th ASEAN Summit in Manila on April 30 to seek diplomatic support from this regional body in pressuring North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons peacefully. 

ASEAN took an unprecedented approach on North Korea by strongly condemning the nuclear tests by Kim Jong-un, and collectively urging North Korea to “immediately comply fully with its obligations arising from all relevant United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions”.

ASEAN’s response to North Korea got a strong diplomatic point from the US. ASEAN needs to strengthen its diplomatic leverage and security role beyond Southeast Asia. ASEAN’s collective voice does matter on a wider multilateral forum. 

The US started realising the relevant role of ASEAN in regional security issue but not yet in economic realm. There would be a mistake if the US does not pay close attention to the economic role of ASEAN in Asia.

The US needs to recognise that ASEAN matters for the US in both economic and security sectors. ASEAN is the third largest economy in Asia and seventh largest economy in the world. ASEAN is America’s fourth-largest trading partner. The US is the largest source of foreign direct investment to ASEAN.

Along with East Asia, the fast-growing economies of ASEAN have become linchpins of global production networks and supply chains.

Now 50 years old, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is today a dynamic actor and a crucial partner in Southeast Asia, a region increasingly important to the world’s prosperity and security. Along with East Asia, the fast-growing economies of ASEAN have become linchpins of global production networks and supply chains.

ASEAN’s regional architecture, fostered by the cultivation of comprehensive, strategic partnerships with international dialogue partners, is critical to peace and stability in Southeast Asia, and ASEAN’s participation in important global forums and governance bodies have attracted growing international attention and engagement.

As a party to free trade agreements in the greater Asia-Pacific, ASEAN is assuming an important role in shaping regional economic governance in Southeast Asia. The ASEAN-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) comprises 30 percent of global GDP – it is going to be a game changer in Asia’s multilateral trade arrangements.

ASEAN has played significant security role through promoting trust and confidence among states, facilitating dialogues and mutual understanding, and preventing conflicts. ASEAN is a role model of an inclusive and open regionalism and a relevant global actor.

To maintain its resident power in the Asia-Pacific, the US, in addition to strengthening the alliance system, needs to proactively and robustly engage ASEAN, which is the most important inter-governmental regional body in the Asia Pacific.

With its future increasingly intertwined with ASEAN, the United States must maintain the momentum of its rebalance towards the Asia-Pacific, focusing on three pillars: comprehensive and inclusive security networks, economic integration and connectivity, and soft power and people-to-people ties.

ASEAN member countries generally acknowledge the pre-eminence of the United States in maintaining regional peace and stability. The United States remains the Pacific power that has provided security in the Asia-Pacific region for the last seven decades.

Winning the hearts of the ASEAN people best serves the long-term interests of the United States in the region.

ASEAN welcomes the active engagement of all major powers in the region, but the continued presence of US military, economic, and soft power is paramount to future regional stability and prosperity. Nevertheless, strategic rivalry and competition between the United States and China have created a security dilemma for ASEAN member countries.

ASEAN member states are not interested in taking sides or being pulled into either camp. A stable and healthy US-China relationship must be the foundation of regional peace and stability. The United States should treat ASEAN as a regional entity independent of its own China strategy.

ASEAN member states dene their national interests primarily in terms of economic development. They want an inclusive and open regionalism in which all countries can benefit from regional cooperation and integration. Therefore, America’s Asia-Pacific rebalance should emphasise economic opportunities for the people of ASEAN. Winning the hearts of the ASEAN people best serves the long-term interests of the United States in the region.

Seven Engagement Policies that the US Should Implement Relating to ASEAN.

First, the needs to concretise the Sunnylands Declaration adopted at the special US-ASEAN Leaders’ Summit in 2016. Out of seventeenth points, the US and ASEAN commit to firmly adhering to a rules-based regional and international order that upholds and protects the rights and privileges of all states.

Second, the US must continue strengthening both security and economic multilateralism by supporting the ASEAN-led regional institutions such as ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM Plus), and East Asia Summit (EAS).

Third, the United States should develop a more concrete action plan to assist ASEAN in realising its Vision 2025, particularly by strengthening the ASEAN-based regional architecture and promoting a rules-based international order.

Fourth, the US must continue strengthening its soft power in the region through implementing the existing initiatives such as Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiatives (YSEALI) and the US-ASEAN Connect which focuses on business, energy, innovation, and policy.

Fifth, the United States should give more emphasis to the Lower Mekong Initiative by providing more technical assistance to the members of the Mekong River Commission, conducting scientific research on the impacts of climate change and hydropower dams, and developing measures to help people adapt when their livelihoods are threatened.

Sixth, the United States should continue to support civil society groups in Southeast Asia that promote the values of democracy and human rights, rule of law, inclusive development, and social justice. Civil society plays a significant role in promoting a people-centred ASEAN, which is the ideal goal of the ASEAN community-building process.

Seventh, education is the main bridge linking the people of ASEAN and the United States. The establishment of Fulbright University in Vietnam is an effective way to strengthen these people-to-people ties. The United States should consider establishing similar institutions in other ASEAN member countries, particularly those with the least developed economies – Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar.

About the Author

Vannarith Chheang is a Visiting Fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. He is also a Co-Founder and Chairman of the Advisory Board of the Cambodian Institute for Strategic Studies (CISS) based in Phnom Penh. His research interest focuses on International Relations in the Asia Pacific region.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.