ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Washington Visit Provides Opportunity to Address Key Policy Concerns

The foreign ministers of all 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will travel to Washington for a joint May 4 meeting with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Coordinating the travel of all the ASEAN foreign ministers (or their proxies) to visit Tillerson so quickly is a minor miracle, and probably reflects both the importance ASEAN places on its relationship with the United States and anxiety over the future of U.S. engagement with the region. ASEAN grew accustomed to consistent high-level attention from the Obama administration and will be looking for signals that the Trump administration places a comparable level of importance on U.S. ties to Southeast Asia.

From a U.S. perspective, meeting so quickly with ASEAN’s full complement is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, the meeting clearly shows a willingness by all the ASEAN member states to proactively engage with the United States and provides an early opportunity for the new administration to build ties with this dynamic and increasingly important region. On the other hand, the administration will need to frame a message that appeals to the diverse members of ASEAN without having first met with U.S. allies and other close partners in the region to get a lay of the land.

Crafting this message will be no easy task. The Obama administration, whose rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region was broadly popular in Southeast Asia, struggled to advance a policy agenda that resonated broadly across ASEAN. The economic pillar of the rebalance, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), attracted varying levels of interest in the six ASEAN states that were not participants. U.S. security engagement in the region, which increasingly focused on Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea, could be viewed as divorced from the security concerns of countries without a stake in the maritime disputes. Efforts to promote democracy and human rights play very differently across a region where governments range from vibrant democracies to one-party states and absolute monarchies.

It is impossible to please all of the ASEANs all of the time. The consensus-based nature of ASEAN makes broad engagement necessary, however, if the United States hopes to advance its diplomatic goals in the Asia-Pacific region through key ASEAN-centered institutions like the East Asia Summit (EAS), ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), and ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting-Plus. Luckily, there is some broad agreement among ASEAN members on their preferred vision for the region that provide the basis for effective U.S. engagement with Southeast Asia.

First, ASEAN wants to encourage economic growth and development and will be looking to engage with the United States to boost trade, investment, and economic assistance. The potential areas for economic cooperation vary widely between the ASEAN member states, but the desire to do business with the United States and its companies is pervasive across the region. Significant political hurdles exist in many Southeast Asian countries in the form of economic nationalism and protectionism, but ASEAN leaders are by and large ready and willing to make what deals they can.

The United States’ withdrawal from the TPP removed the best near-term opportunity to boost economic ties with Southeast Asia. However, ASEAN states—including those that did not participate in the agreement—are interested in learning how the United States plans to engage the region on trade and investment without the TPP. They want to know how President Trump plans to press them on leveling the playing field for U.S. firms and the implications for the four ASEAN countries the administration is investigating for their role in contributing to the U.S. trade deficit.

Second, ASEAN wants to preserve the strategic autonomy of its member states to pursue their own independent foreign and domestic policies, and it welcomes U.S. policies that support this goal. ASEAN owes its very existence to this goal, and the at-times monotonous focus on preserving ASEAN centrality and unity reflects an awareness by ASEAN states that, whatever their differences, they need each other to resist pressure from and potential domination by outside powers, especially China.

The United States shares the desire to see Southeast Asia remain free of outside domination, and as such it makes sense to continue to support ASEAN centrality and unity as a means to that end. ASEAN also favors aspects of the U.S.-led rules-based international order that help preserve its members’ autonomy by providing smaller states with the ability to challenge the behavior of major powers without fear of serious retribution. U.S. policies that support international rules and norms that protect the rights of all states—such as freedom of navigation operations—have widespread support in the region, as do changes in U.S. security posture that help maintain a regional balance of power.

Finally, ASEAN wants the Asia-Pacific region to remain stable and peaceful, which in the current geopolitical situation means that ASEAN wants the United States and China to get along. It certainly does not want the United States and China to agree to any arrangement that places Southeast Asia in a sphere of influence, undermining the autonomy of Southeast Asian states. Excepting that unlikely scenario, however, positive relations between Washington and Beijing are good for ASEAN members so long as a modicum of balance in the region is maintained.

ASEAN supports—if sometimes only quietly—U.S. diplomatic and military efforts to balance against China’s growing power and uphold key aspects of the rules-based international order. But this support can quickly turn to criticism from some ASEAN members if the United States is seen as being unnecessarily provocative and risking a conflict. These tactical disagreements can often be exasperating for U.S. policymakers, but ultimately ASEAN and the United States see eye-to-eye on the broad strategic goal of peacefully managing China’s rise.

Given these broad areas of consensus within ASEAN, the foreign ministers who will meet with Tillerson will probably be most interested in hearing the Trump administration’s economic agenda for Southeast Asia, a commitment to engage with ASEAN-centered regional institutions like the EAS and ARF, and assurances that the United States plans to continue playing a restrained balancing role in the Asia Pacific. They will also want to hear the Trump administration’s views on key regional flashpoints like the South China Sea and North Korea, and how the United States intends to engage with China and other key regional players to manage them.

Vice President Mike Pence’s pledge during an April 21 visit to the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta that Trump will attend the EAS, U.S.-ASEAN leaders summit, and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in November should soothe regional anxiety over continued U.S. engagement, as will Tillerson’s pledge to the ASEAN ambassadors that he will attend the ARF in August. This is an important first step toward building positive relations with Southeast Asia, and Tillerson’s meeting with the ASEAN foreign ministers should go smoothly if he can address ASEAN’s other key concerns as effectively, setting the stage for Secretary of Defense James Mattis to further explain the Trump administration’s Asia policy at the Shangri-La Dialogue in early June.

Geoffrey Hartman is a fellow with the CSIS Southeast Asia Program.

Commentary is 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).

© 2017 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved. 
Photo credit: Lintao Zhang - Pool/Getty Images

Geoffrey Hartman