Absent in Danang
August 25, 2010
A political commitment to trade is badly needed in the United States. That point is underlined as the economic and trade ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) gather in Danang, the largest city in central Vietnam, positioned on the white sand beaches of the coast and nestled next to the ancient city of Hoi An. The ASEAN ministers are there meeting with their counterparts from all the other East Asia Summit members—and future member—Australia, China, India, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, and Russia (the prospective member). Even the European Union is represented at a ministerial level. As the proverbial roll call of serious players on economic integration and trade in Asia is called in Danang, one important actor is missing. The United States—absent.
The gap in U.S. strategy for intensifying its engagement in Southeast Asia is clearly trade. While the United States is starting to connect the dots diplomatically and on security architecture, our trade professionals, some of the most experienced Southeast Asia hands in the administration, are essentially benched as they wait for political and policy decisions to put U.S. trade leadership back into the game. That call is clearly being held hostage by the White House and its focus on U.S. midterm elections in November. Political will better follow elections quickly—meaning pre-Thanksgiving, ideally during President Obama’s extended November tour of Asia—or U.S. engagement in the region will continue to be incomplete and less than strategic.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s attendance record at key ASEAN meetings is perfect to date. She hasn’t missed an ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) meeting yet and has earned extra credit for visiting Indonesia and the ASEAN Secretariat very early in her tenure. Across the Potomac at the Pentagon, her counterpart, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, is also kicking butt and taking names—focused like a laser on the development of a new security architecture in Asia that will have ASEAN at its core. Gates will travel to Vietnam in October to participate in the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting–Plus Eight (ADMM+8), which includes all the countries listed above now meeting in Danang except the European Union. Secretary Clinton will be in Vietnam too in October—at the East Asia Summit receiving and accepting the invitation for the United States to join that group.
Gates and Clinton recognize the need to be forward deployed. Last month, while Clinton laid down very serious commitments at the ARF in Hanoi around the South China Sea, Gates travelled to Jakarta, the incoming chair of ASEAN for 2011, to cement the return of U.S.-Indonesia military-to-military relations after a nearly two-decade hiatus during which the U.S. military essentially lost contact with its counterparts in Southeast Asia’s largest country.
Unfortunately, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk and Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke have not been given the nod to engage like their counterparts at the State and Defense Departments. Make no mistake, it is not that they don’t want to be there, but they don’t have the remit to do so because the United States is quite frankly unsure of its footing on trade due to domestic politics. Fixing that situation will take presidential leadership and a true focus on national security—and a big dollop of courage.
Trade is vital to sustained economic recovery in the United States. Every CEO worth his or her salt knows this and is trying to figure out how to convey it to the White House and Congress without being politically castigated in the poisonous partisan environment inside the beltway. The United States will not achieve the president’s goal of doubling exports in five years without a trade policy. And it will not reach that goal without getting in the game with Asia on trade—particularly ASEAN, whose 10 nations and 620 million people are collectively the fourth-largest market for U.S. goods and services. Further, confidence in the United States and its ability to lead and follow through on commitments is based on its economic well-being, and that status is being questioned by friends and competitors alike in Asia.
The United States can’t be healthy and vibrant economically without a trade policy. Yes, moving on trade has been politically unpopular in this country for the last couple decades because it means change. It is the political equivalent of a doctor telling a patient he has to diet to be healthy. Hard truth, but necessary. Once the guidance is given and taken, the patient gets healthy, feels good, and thanks the doctor for the advice.
It is too late for the United States to be at the table on trade with its ASEAN counterparts in Vietnam. But a commitment not to miss the ASEAN Economic Ministers Meeting again, to explore whether the United States can develop a hybrid model for engaging ASEAN on trade that takes into account the wide disparity of economic development within ASEAN while at the same time moving forward with the countries that can and will implement facilitation and trade-opening measures, and to shift the paradigm from “too hard” to “let’s innovate” is necessary to have a real U.S. strategy for Asia and ASEAN, promote economic growth, and protect national security interests.
Ernest Z. Bower is a senior adviser and director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Commentaries are produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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