ASEAN’s Golden Moment in a Time of Crisis

ASEAN’s Golden Moment in a Time of Crisis

Yesterday marked the 50 birthday of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). It is a day worth celebrating, because in its first half century, ASEAN has accomplished two important goals: keeping peace among 10 wildly diverse nations in Southeast Asia (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam) and integrating them into a nearly tariff-free zone. Yet the Trump administration will be best able to maximize the benefit to the United States of this relationship with ASEAN only when it determines what broader U.S. strategy toward Asia actually is.

In recent years, the United States has increased its diplomacy with ASEAN, including when President Barack Obama opened an ASEAN mission in Jakarta in 2010 and hosted the 10 leaders for a first summit on U.S. soil in Sunnylands, California in 2016.

The Trump team has continued this engagement and gets mostly high marks for maintaining ASEAN formalities. It was very important to ASEAN that Trump signal he would attend the summits in November, and he did. In April, Vice President Mike Pence visited the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta, Indonesia, and last week Secretary of State Rex Tillerson traveled to the ASEAN foreign minister meetings in Manila. He didn’t turn up for all the events with his counterparts, but did march through the ministerials.

This investment is sensible because the ASEAN relationship benefits the United States. A union of 10 small nations pledging non-violence and operating by consensus offers stability in a region with multiple big power rivals. ASEAN will never be a titan like China, Japan, India, or Russia. But its weakness in the traditional power sense allows ASEAN to play a vital and irreplaceable role.

Only ASEAN can call all the big powers to the table for the yearly East Asia Summit (EAS) meetings. These convocations of 18 Asian countries (ASEAN plus Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand, India, Russia, South Korea, and the United States) that our president, secretaries of state, defense, and other U.S. officials attend have become key platforms to share U.S. priorities and policies, distinguish our views from others and shape consensus on important common security threats. Tillerson used his opportunity in Manila to rally Asian powers around the North Korea challenge. With President Trump and Pyongyang trading threats yesterday, Tillerson’s time with Asian officials was well spent. No matter what our next move is, the United States will need the support of other Asian powers. The advent in 2016 of a regular EAS Ambassadors’ Meeting in Jakarta (EAMJ) promises more potential for cooperation in addition to more clarity over differences — useful in the tense period ahead.

As for economics, ASEAN is responsible for over half a million U.S. jobs, located in each of the 50 states, with the potential for more. Among ASEAN’s 630 million citizens, the middle class is exploding. While the range of economic development in ASEAN is vast, the average economic growth rate is above 5 percent. ASEAN has plans to integrate further according to the ambitious ASEAN Economic Community Blueprint, providing one of few counterpoints to trade unraveling in other parts of the globe.

ASEAN also helps to coordinate its 10 country members to counter transnational threats we share. It could do much more, especially on counterterrorism, but in human trafficking, for example, ASEAN adopted a high-standards binding convention which all 10 countries are now reflecting in their domestic legal systems. We can hope ASEAN brings a similar approach to the terrible devastation — from overfishing, illegal fishing, pollution, climate change, and artificial island construction — facing the precious marine ecosystems of the region and thus threatening jobs and food security.

Which brings us to the South China Sea and the trade routes through which over $5 trillion in goods pass each year. ASEAN has its share of shortcomings, but failure to resolve the South China Sea disputes with China should not be the measure of its worth. Even the powerful United States can have trouble finding leverage in its relationship with China, so it is unreasonable to expect small neighboring nations to stand firm in the face of dire warnings from their largest trading partner.

But when it does find specific points on which it can unite, ASEAN has shown true courage. Despite relentless pressure from Beijing, ASEAN has continued to insist on language in diplomatic statements that Asia is a “rules-based” region and that international law is to be respected, including the Law of the Sea. They have acknowledged the Philippines winning arbitration case in their documents by a reference to “full respect for legal and diplomatic processes.” This year’s statement also noted concerns over land reclamation.

While the Trump administration is not enamored of international law, this is a worthy point of commonality with ASEAN, as a rules-based global order benefits the United States, and it matters whether Beijing will conform its actions to meet its international legal obligations. While it is not a claimant, Washington should continue, in a variety of ways, to reinforce a framework of international law when it comes to South China Sea disputes.

Yet without a clear policy about how important Asia is to the United States, and what Washington’s plans are in Asia, the potential to cooperate with ASEAN will be limited. Many ASEAN officials, like so many in Asia, were sorely disappointed that the Trump administration rejected the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Economic initiatives in Asia are the best measure of strategic intent, and China has many to offer: the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), One Belt, One Road Initiative (OBOR), and others. If not the TPP, a different strategic economic vision or program — that offers the region high-quality economic alternatives to China and benefits U.S. workers — is what is needed. One option is to super-charge U.S.-ASEAN Connect, a framework under which the whole U.S. interagency has worked already.

For its part, ASEAN should increase the transparency to the public of what actually happens at the EAS and other meetings and work hard to reach the many lofty goals it has set for its “ASEAN Community” — such as promoting rule of law, fighting corruption, empowering women, boosting innovation, preserving natural resources, and promoting tolerance.

If ASEAN reaches its full potential, it will be able to have a strong hand in writing the rules that will govern Asia in the 21st century. And if the United States returns to its traditional role as a leader in Asia and a defender of international law and universal rights, it will be able to partner with ASEAN on that important project.

Photo credit: MOHD RASFAN/AFP/Getty Images