1. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) contributes to U.S. political, economic, and security interests in the Asia-Pacific region. As Asia's power increases relative to other regions of the world, the U.S. stake in ASEAN's continued success grows. Yet, U.S. engagement in the region, relative to its activity in Northeast Asia, remains limited.
2. Current plans for the expansion of ASEAN from 7 to 10 members may put the organization at odds with U.S. policy in the region. Expansion may also threaten the Association's stability since new members may have significantly different interests and needs, diminishing the organization's cohesiveness along political and economic lines. Its regional security dialogue, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) has already expanded its membership to 21 dialogue partners. This expansion may exacerbate the forum's tendency toward process rather than substance.
3. The ARF remains a useful organization for cooperative security, however, cooperative security in Southeast Asia has inherent limitations; above all, it can never substitute for the relations between China, Japan and the United States. Relations among these three major powers could have profound consequences on the peace and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region in the next century. If ASEAN and the ARF cannot control conflict or discuss the core regional issues such as China, the Korean peninsula, and Russia, then other fora for such discussion must be sought. In that case, the U.S. ought to consider a Northeast Asian security mechanism to handle the serious strategic issues of the region.
4. The U.S. can help establish a defense ministerial dialogue but it must work with ASEAN member states to focus such discussions on regional security issues. As recent tensions in the Taiwan Strait and riots in Indonesia suggest, the U.S. must not take for granted the current Southeast Asian peace; it must work actively to promote it.
ASEAN was established in 1967 by five Southeast Asian countries: Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and the Philippines. Brunei joined in 1984. Vietnam was admitted in 1995. The organization is likely to admit Laos and Cambodia in 1997, and Burma by the year 2000.
Before 1967 it was possible to think of Southeast Asia as a region in name only. The countries of the region enjoyed regional proximity, but little else. In 1960, for example, for every Thai who visited neighboring Burma or Cambodia, there were 200 who went to England, France, or the United States. Times have indeed changed, and it can be argued that ASEAN is largely responsible for creating the increased sense of regional identity. While this unity is certainly desirable, that alone does not explain the need for the United States to become more deeply involved in the region.
The nations of ASEAN are the fastest growing consumers of U.S. goods and services today. If current trends continue, by the end of the first decade of the next century, ASEAN will be the United States' second largest trading partner, with two-way trade totaling more than $300 billion. The U.S. government thus has great self-interest in pursuing policies capable of handling relations with the region's predominant multilateral trade organization, ASEAN, as well as with each of its member countries on a bilateral basis. The current peace in Southeast Asia, which has provided the conditions necessary for the promotion of incredible economic growth, cannot be taken for granted. The United States must actively pursue bilateral and multilateral options for contact with the nations of Southeast Asia.
U.S. Interests in ASEAN
Politically and economically, Southeast Asia is gaining international weight and influence. In the next 15 years, the 10 countries that are likely to comprise ASEAN will have a combined population of 560 million people at an average age of 20. …