U.S.-ASEAN Relations: Charting the Next 40 Years

The CSIS Southeast Asia Program on March 1-2 organized a conference in Manila, Philippines—“U.S.-ASEAN Relations: Charting the Next 40 Years” in cooperation with the Albert del Rosario Institute for Strategic and International Studies and with the generous support of the U.S. Department of State.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of U.S.-ASEAN relations and the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), making it an opportune time to take stock of the grouping’s achievements and challenges, and explore ways to deepen U.S.-ASEAN ties. The conference focused on identifying key issues and formulating practical recommendations to improve ASEAN’s capacity to tackle these challenges and to build stronger, long-lasting U.S. ties with the region.

The 10-nation ASEAN organization has transformed Southeast Asia since it was launched by five countries in 1967, helping a war-torn and divided region grow into an economically dynamic and largely peaceful region, with ever-expanding areas of cooperation among member states and with their dialogue partners. ASEAN is now a $2.5 trillion economic area, wedged between China and India, with a population of over 620 million that is young and increasingly well educated.

ASEAN is at the heart of regional economic integration efforts, including through the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) that was launched last year, and a raft of “ASEAN-plus” free trade agreements, including ongoing negotiations for a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement that includes China, Japan, and India, but not the United States.

ASEAN also convenes the region. ASEAN hosts the East Asia Summit, which brings together leaders of the Indo-Pacific to discuss strategic issues. The ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), an annual meeting of roughly 27 foreign ministers, has long been a venue to discuss regional security challenges and promote confidence-building measures and practical cooperation on a range of transnational challenges. The newer ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM+) has engaged ASEAN and eight key dialogue partners in addressing regional security challenges and promoting practical cooperation among their militaries on issues ranging from maritime security to counterterrorism and disaster response.

Despite these achievements and a future that in many ways looks bright, ASEAN as a grouping is at a crossroads. Strategic rivalries in the Indo-Pacific are growing, and tensions over China’s maritime claims and activities in the South China Sea are rising. Although economic integration is advancing slowly, trade and investment barriers between member states remain high, and intra-regional trade and investment remain below their potential.

These challenges give rise to questions about whether the “ASEAN way” of slow, consensus-driven policy formulation is the best approach to achieve collective Southeast Asian goals of peace and prosperity in the new strategic context. Or, to put the question in a more pointed way, can ASEAN centrality exist without ASEAN unity?

The Manila conference provided an opportunity to examine the opportunities and challenges facing ASEAN across economic, security, and transnational issues. The conference involved about 40 participants, including many young thought leaders from each of the countries in Southeast Asia as well as the United States, Australia, China, India, and Japan. Participants exchanged views and proposed recommendations for both ASEAN as a grouping and the United States in its relations with ASEAN.

Some of these recommendations and key takeaways are summarized below.

ASEAN Centrality and Strategic Vision

ASEAN over the years has dramatically transformed relations within Southeast Asia and between ASEAN and larger regional players. In recent years, the emergence of disputes in the South China Sea between China and ASEAN claimants has created a sense of domestic populism and nationalism in several countries and fostered a “trust deficit” within ASEAN as a grouping. This poses a long-term challenge to ASEAN and, because the grouping has had difficulty building consensus, risks causing it to become irrelevant and marginalized.

Recommendations :

  • ASEAN should develop a clear strategic vision for Southeast Asia and renew the grouping’s purpose. A bold, future-oriented vision is needed to advance initiatives and shape the region in ways favorable to the interests of ASEAN members, and to avoid becoming complacent and being marginalized.
  • ASEAN should tackle the grouping’s self-doubt and focus on moving beyond acceptance of minimalist solutions determined by the lowest common denominator in its consensus-driven decision-making style. To do this, ASEAN needs to develop the capacity for independent actions in its own best interests, actions that are not seen as doing the bidding of a larger power.
  • Some participants suggested that ASEAN needs to be restructured and its charter revised, particularly article 20 on consensus, to provide options for the grouping to move forward when one member blocks a move by the rest of the organization.
  • To enhance its regional role and significance, ASEAN should consider developing a Treaty of Amity and Cooperation for the larger Indo-Pacific region similar to the one it developed earlier for the Southeast Asia region, which the United States, China, Japan, India, and other countries have signed on to.

U.S. Policy toward ASEAN

A number of participants raised concerns about political developments in Washington and the perception that Southeast Asia is not on the radar of President Donald Trump’s administration’s. Some talked of the United States facing a challenge of confidence and credibility in the region. Others cited concern that rivalry and tensions between China and the United States will increase under the new administration. Concern was also expressed about the apparent rising Islamophobia in the United States highlighted by the debate over the travel ban executive orders.

Recommendations :

  • Trump should attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Vietnam and the East Asia Summit (EAS) in the Philippines in November to demonstrate continued U.S. interest in and engagement with the region.
  • Trump should invite the ASEAN heads of government to a summit in the United States to build on the momentum in U.S.-ASEAN relations that came out of discussions in Sunnylands, California, in early 2016.
  • Washington must ensure that it does not look at ASEAN only through the prism of China. For the United States to remain relevant to ASEAN, it needs a comprehensive engagement strategy with the grouping based on mutual interests, not based solely on strategic concerns about Beijing.

Economic Engagement

Trump’s scrapping of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which at its core set the standards for a new generation of commercial interaction, is a severe blow to U.S. credibility in the region. The demise of the TPP was particularly discouraging to the four ASEAN member countries—Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam—that had agreed to politically difficult economic reforms and viewed the TPP as a hedge against China’s increasing economic clout in the region. The 16 participants in RCEP have agreed in principle to try to complete their negotiations this year, a goal Manila has set as a deliverable during its chairmanship. But after 17 rounds of talks, the parties are still far apart on many issues.

Recommendations :

  • To complete the RCEP negotiations soon, it is important for the leaders of the participating countries to meet at the highest level much like the heads of the TPP countries did to overcome hurdles and roadblocks.
  • Without the TPP to drive trade and investment liberalization in the region, Washington should elevate the role of APEC to tackle trade challenges in areas like digital commerce and nontariff barriers.
  • It is important for Washington to develop a post-TPP economic strategy for Southeast Asia. Some suggested that the United States should focus on assisting ASEAN in helping harmonize regulations in the AEC, helping to tackle the nontariff barriers that still hobble intra-regional trade, and promoting intellectual property protection.

Infrastructure and Connectivity

Connectivity through infrastructure development remains a high priority for ASEAN. Southeast Asia will need $210 billion per year to build the infrastructure the region needs by 2030, according to Asian Development Bank estimates. Participants said they wanted the United States to be more actively involved in developing infrastructure to provide greater balance with China, including ensuring that these projects are developed on commercial terms, and in providing after-service support for the projects.

Recommendations :

  • U.S. companies should link up with Japanese companies, which have stepped up their involvement in infrastructure development in Southeast Asia in recent years.
  • U.S. companies should explore ways to use their expertise to invest in “soft infrastructure” —renewable energy, education, health, technology, and the Internet—which is a priority for ASEAN.

ASEAN Institutional Effectiveness

Participants discussed a number of ways that ASEAN institutional effectiveness could be improved. The ASEAN Secretariat is underfunded and understaffed, which keeps its coordinating role at a relatively minimal level. In addition, the EAS and other ASEAN-centered forums could be strengthened by having greater continuity in agenda setting and activities throughout the year.

Recommendations :

  • ASEAN should strengthen the capacity of the secretariat. The size of its staff is limited by the relatively small budget to which all 10 countries contribute equally. The grouping should allow individual countries to contribute more for key projects outside of the core budget.
  • ASEAN should develop a crisis management mechanism under the EAS that would function throughout the year. The EAS, which includes ASEAN plus such dialogue partners as China and the United States, functions largely as a “hello-goodbye” forum when it meets once a year. One idea proposed was to establish a “peace and security council” made up of the permanent representatives from ASEAN and the ambassadors appointed from each of the “plus” EAS countries.
  • The ADMM+ should meet annually at the ministerial level, rather than biannually as it now does. The forum has proven very useful as a venue for strategic dialogue and promoting practical defense cooperation and capacity building to address transnational challenges. Having the ASEAN defense ministers plus ministers from eight dialogue partners meet every year to exchange views on regional security and promote further defense cooperation would further strengthen this forum.

People-to-People Ties

Although U.S.-ASEAN people-to-people ties through education, economic and other interactions are strong, more could be done to promote understanding and cooperation between the people of ASEAN and the United States.

Recommendations :

  • Efforts should be made to encourage more U.S. citizens to study in the ASEAN region. Although tens of thousands of Southeast Asians study in U.S. high schools, colleges, and universities, relatively few Americans study in Southeast Asia.
  • The Young Southeast Asia Leadership Initiative (YSEALI) should be continued and expanded. This initiative was established by the previous administration to boost the leadership skills of Southeast Asian young people and promote cooperation across borders to solve regional challenges. Participants at the conference, including the 10 YSEALI participants themselves, were unanimous in their agreement that YSEALI was a highly effective program that paid big dividends in building regional networks, mutual understanding, capacity, and stronger U.S.-ASEAN ties.

(This Commentary originally appeared in the March 23, 2017, issue of Southeast Asia from Scott Circle.)

Dr. Amy Searight is a senior adviser and director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C .

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: ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images

Amy Searight