The US partnership with The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is a late bloomer, as it is a result of the US shift from its unilateral to multilateral approach. ASEAN has been around since 1967, but Washington has by and large ignored the South East Asian region and has focused on the Northeast Asian region, namely Japan, China and South and North Korea. ASEAN has been active and have recently signed free trade agreements (FTA) with Australia and New Zealand, Korea, Japan, China, and India.
The Obama administration has realized that in order to have meaningful relation with the region, it has to give due attention to the economic, security and diplomatic facets and make mutually beneficial linkages. Obama’s rich background links him up with Indonesia, which might have given him a perspective into different cultures that others might have lacked in the past. The US has had several bilateral agreements with different countries of the ASEAN in the past, but a comprehensive, rational, and balanced liaison was lacking so far.
The US interest in the South East Asian region is not just economic and diplomatic but also based on security concerns. After all, the region has important maritime shipping routes, which has bearing on the US trade as well as security. From the point of view of trade and investment, the US has over $153 billion in investment in ASEAN alone; likewise, US is the largest market for ASEAN countries. ASEAN comprises Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei Darussalam, Viet Nam, Lao PDR, Myanmar and Cambodia, and is home to a stable economy. A U.S.-Vietnam Bilateral Trade Agreement aiming to liberalize the Vietnamese market and allow foreign investment is currently waiting for approval in the US Congress. This agreement is to boost Vietnam’s total exports to the U.S., meanwhile the U.S. exports to Vietnam are likely to increase to up to $500 million. From the security point of view, the ASEAN waters have been home to the annual Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) military exercises that allow the U.S. naval units to conduct navy and marine operations with their regional counterparts, namely Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei. These exercises have renewed the hope of the Indonesian Navy of reviving the defunct U.S.-Indonesian military-to-military relationship, which can lead to better relationship between the two counteries as well.
Most importantly, the US is poised to use this partnership in dealing with China’s power and counter its interest in the region. ASEAN’s relationship with China has a long and stable history, despite its shaky start. It was China that helped the ASEAN economies recover from the1997 economic crisis. It has proven its worth as a responsible regional player for ASEAN counteries. The South East Asian region’s maritime route and natural resources make the region of key importance to both the US and China. Though China’s claim on the South China Sea and its stand with Taiwan have been regarded with fear, China’s influence in the region has been so far peaceful and productive, and the US has more to gain from the ASEAN – China relationship than to lose. ASEAN too would like to keep both as allies rather than favoring either.
Countering terrorism has become an alarming reality for the globe. Although the region has population that is by and large religiously moderate, threats of terrorism, sectarian, and communal riots have been on the rise. Kept on check this issue can also undermine the US interests in the region. The refugee situation is East Timor, the issue of Burma, and the rise of extremist organizations like that of Abu Sayyaf in Philippines are some of the areas of transnational security concerns for the ASEAN members and the US.
In recent times, the South East Asian region has been battling with natural calamities and disasters and has received the international community’s succor and support. Hence, the partnership would enable the region to monitor changing environmental trends and anomalies, bio diversity issues and manage disaster and relief efforts in a better way.
All in all, ASEAN and US ties show that a secure and prosperous future is only possible through collaboration and cooperation. In words of Ambassador Scot Marciel the U.S.-ASEAN relations are based on “pragmatism and partnership”, let’s hope that this commitment and vision retains intact.
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