United States Relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) *

By Lum, Thomas; Dolven, Ben et al. | Current Politics and Economics of South, Southeastern, and Central Asia, April 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

United States Relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) *


Lum, Thomas, Dolven, Ben, Manyin, Mark E., Martin, Michael F., Vaughn, Bruce, Current Politics and Economics of South, Southeastern, and Central Asia


OVERVIEW: U.S. INTERESTS TOWARDS ASEAN

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is Southeast Asia's primary multilateral organization, a 10-member grouping of nations with a combined population of 580 million and an annual gross domestic product (GDP) of around $1.5 trillion. Established in 1967 to foster regional dialogue during the turbulent post-colonial, Cold War period, it has grown into one of the world's largest regional fora, representing a strategically and economically important region that spans some of the world's most critical sea lanes and accounted for around 5% of the United States' total trade in 2008 [1]

The Obama Administration is pursuing a policy of expanding and upgrading U.S. relations with Southeast Asia, and with ASEAN itself. Although the Bush Administration took steps to develop ties with the region, it was widely perceived among members of ASEAN as narrowly focused on terrorism, neglectful of other issues, and not sufficiently committed to multilateral dialogue. By contrast, the Obama Administration has explicitly expressed an intent to pay greater attention to Southeast Asia, listen more carefully to regional concerns, and work with multilateral organizations, particularly ASEAN, to cooperate on issues of mutual interest.

The United States has deep-seated interests in Southeast Asia, such as maritime security, the promotion of democracy and human rights, the encouragement of liberal trade and investment regimes, counterterrorism, the combating of illegal trafficking of narcotics and human trafficking, and many others. As China has deepened its economic and cultural ties in Southeast Asia, and even taken some steps to build security ties, some analysts believe the region has also become an important site of -soft power" rivalry, in which the longstanding leadership role of the United States could be challenged by a rising China. Other external powers also have shown renewed or greater interest in the region, including Japan, the EU, and India.

Engagement with ASEAN has presented the United States with an important foreign policy dilemma. Despite considerable U.S. security, economic, and foreign assistance initiatives in the region, particularly at the bilateral level, in recent years a perception has developed among Southeast Asian elites that the United States has placed relatively little priority on ASEAN itself and has, thereby, demonstrated a lack of commitment to Southeast Asia as a whole. Southeast Asian diplomats frequently note that other nations, including China and Japan, have given ASEAN meetings a considerably higher diplomatic commitment than has the United States. Indeed, in some ASEAN countries, one of the largest irritants to bilateral relationship with the United States is the fact that it is perceived as insufficiently engaged with the multilateral body of ASEAN [2]

The United States has long had close bilateral relations with many of Southeast Asia's nations. Two ASEAN members, Thailand and the Philippines, are U.S. treaty allies, and a third, Singapore, is a close security partner. Indonesia and Malaysia have long had strong ties with Washington, and both are seen as important models of progressive governance and economic development in majority Muslim nations. In recent years, Vietnam has also become an increasingly important voice in regional affairs, and the United States has moved to normalize and deepen ties with its one-time adversary.

Some feel that these strong sets of bilateral ties are sufficient to anchor the U.S. role in the region, arguing moreover that ASEAN's consensus-based decision-making makes it difficult for the organization to accomplish much, given its broad membership, which includes highly developed financial centers, vibrant developing-nation democracies, and impoverished military dictatorships.

Still, symbolic commitment is particularly important in a region that places a heavy emphasis on process and informal networking. …

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