Here’s How Trump Can Succeed in Southeast Asia
The president needs to learn of the benefits and necessity of multilateralism.
Vice President Mike Pence visited the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Secretariat in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Thursday. ASEAN, which is celebrating its 50th birthday this year, is the cornerstone of Asia’s multilateral institutions, so we can hope that President Donald Trump’s distrust of multilateralism becomes the next foreign-policy position that he reverses. Last week, Trump gave up some vociferously held positions — China is a currency manipulator, NATO is obsolete, the Export-Import Bank is unnecessary — in favor of more reality-based ones, so there’s cause for guarded optimism.
Every foreign-policy issue consequential to America’s wellbeing today requires a multilateral solution. If a border wall could halt diseases, nuclear material, terrorists, traffickers, and weather, then national security and the job of the president would be much easier. But that is not our world.
ASEAN is a collection of 10 small (except for Indonesia), non-threatening, wildly diverse countries that decided to band together to keep the peace among themselves. At this they have succeeded. Economic growth is strong because ASEAN means that officials talk out their differences rather than fight them out.
So ASEAN is important to the United States for economic reasons — the bloc is America’s fourth-largest export goods market, responsible for over half a million jobs in the United States already. The ASEAN consumer class, hungry for U.S. products and services, is exploding, especially in countries like Vietnam.
ASEAN members are also increasingly coordinating themselves on transnational threats that affect Americans — foreign terrorist fighters returning from Iraq and Syria, illegal fishing, and human trafficking, to name a few. ASEAN is working toward tactical cooperation and common standards. And ASEAN members Thailand and the Philippines are U.S. treaty allies.
The association is the convener of Asia. Every year, it hosts a number of meetings with eight key dialogue partners — Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea, and the United States — including the East Asia Summit, which is maturing into a very useful forum for leaders to discuss political and security issues like North Korea’s illicit nuclear program and the South China Sea.
ASEAN is also vital because, as a collective, its members have championed international law. It is a central organization in the effort to press China into abiding by international law when it comes to the South China Sea dispute. Many if not all of ASEAN’s members want U.S. engagement to bolster the strategic independence they seek. Some want much more.
But military engagement is not sufficient for ASEAN and does not do justice to America’s already-strong, 40-year, economic, cultural, and personal ties with this region. Especially after the tragic rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, onto which four ASEAN nations signed, ASEAN will want to see evidence of U.S. economic commitment. ASEAN’s main project is to integrate its 10 members into the ASEAN Economic Community, which the United States ought to encourage. When I was the U.S. ambassador to ASEAN, with the help of the American private sector, we started a low-cost strategic framework to pull together all U.S. economic, public, and private initiatives in ASEAN under one rubric: U.S.-ASEAN Connect, to better coordinate lines of work and showcase our commitment. An investment in Connect would be one way to signal U.S. engagement. No doubt, there are others.
In Asia, bilateral efforts on trade and security are not enough. China knows this, which is why it has proposed so many huge economic initiatives that capture the imagination of ASEAN members and others, even if these initiatives — such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the Maritime Silk Road, and One Belt, One Road — do not deliver immediate results. ASEAN will always want China as a partner, but will always want the United States too, not to mention India, Japan, and others.
Pence announced a very important commitment on Thursday. He said that Trump would attend the East Asia Summit and the U.S.-ASEAN Summit on November 14 in the Philippines, as well as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Vietnam. The American president showing up in Asia will reassure ASEAN and all U.S. partners there of America’s continued engagement. Perhaps in the run-up to those meetings, Trump will begin to learn of the benefits and necessity of multilateralism and will bring to the table tangible steps toward renewed American leadership in Asia.
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