How Not to Lose Asia to China

How Not to Lose Asia to China

This week, the foreign ministers of the 10 countries that make up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are coming to Washington for an annual U.S.-ASEAN dialogue. Usually, this meeting takes place among “senior officials,” but some combination of anxiety over American engagement, and 2017 being the 40th anniversary of U.S.-ASEAN relations, has ASEAN sending its top diplomats.

To date, President Donald Trump’s administration has maintained President Barack Obama’s intense pace of high-level engagement in the Asia-Pacific. And while Trump’s policies in Northeast Asia — wild posturing with North Korea, insufficient coordination with allies, and a hazardously transactional approach with China — have depleted America’s leadership and credibility in the region, Trump still has an opportunity to get Southeast Asia right.

As Secretary of State Rex Tillerson prepares for his first meeting with the ASEAN foreign ministers, here are suggestions for ASEAN policy.

Promise and then deliver broad, regional economic engagement. The ASEAN bloc is America’s fourth-largest export goods market, responsible already for over half a million jobs in the United States. But after the tragic dismissal of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which four ASEAN nations negotiated and many more aspired to join, ASEAN will want to see evidence of America’s economic commitment. Bilateral efforts on trade will not be sufficient — leadership is necessary. China knows this, which is why it has proposed a raft of economic initiatives that capture the imagination of ASEAN members and others, even if these initiatives — such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and One Belt, One Road — do not ultimately deliver promised results. China, ASEAN, and the rest of Asia are also negotiating the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which will become the trade centerpiece of the region. ASEAN will always want China as a partner, but will always want the United States, too — not to mention India, Japan, and others.

U.S.-ASEAN Connect, an effort launched with help from the American private sector, pulls together all U.S. economic, public, and private initiatives in ASEAN. An investment in Connect would be one way to signal U.S. engagement and support of ASEAN integration. No doubt, there are others. But the Trump administration needs to pick one — which involves all ten members — and run with it.

Don’t squeeze ASEAN too hard. As U.S. engagement with ASEAN has ramped up in recent years, a paradox has emerged: the United States wants ASEAN to tackle increasingly important issues like the South China Sea, but ASEAN isn’t built to solve all divisive regional problems. The U.S. impulse will always be to push ASEAN harder, and dealing with ASEAN can be frustratingly slow. But ASEAN benefits the United States in many ways by championing international law, by working on transnational threats and by providing a venue that brings together all of Asia’s main players. Unlike some other powers — including China — the United States benefits from ASEAN’s unity, and ASEAN greatly appreciates U.S. support for it.

Strengthen the East Asia Summit (EAS). Perhaps the most important regional venue that ASEAN organizes is the EAS, which annually brings together leaders of the region’s 18 most-influential countries (ASEAN countries plus Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea, and the United States). The EAS is the only game in town in Asia — the place for the region’s key players to get together regularly to discuss key security challenges. The United States has used it to advance Washington’s views on issues like North Korea’s nuclear program and counterterrorism by rallying others to those causes. Strengthening the EAS through mechanisms like the EAS Ambassadors, now a formal mechanism in Jakarta, will take time, patience, and intensive diplomacy, but it’s well worth it. Years from now, the EAS is where the region could forge closer cooperation on problems like human trafficking and manage and prevent incidents in the South China Sea.

Remain steadfast in the South China Sea. Maritime disputes in the South China Sea will likely be the most difficult challenge facing the United States in its relations with ASEAN — and possibly with China. Most ASEAN members are keen for U.S. engagement on the issue but simultaneously do not want any increase in tensions. To advance U.S. interests, the Trump administration must be steadfast in defense of key principles: preserve peace and stability, respect for international law, free flow of lawful commerce, freedom of navigation and overflight. There are also concerns over the catastrophic damage to reefs from China’s artificial island construction.

The Trump administration should work to keep the South China Sea on the agenda at ASEAN meetings and maintain the pressure on Beijing to abide by international law and its pledge not to militarize the Spratly Islands. The United States should uphold the July 2016 ruling of the International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea, including how it conducts freedom of navigation operations. An unwavering commitment to uphold U.S. interests will help stiffen ASEAN’s spine in dealing with the South China Sea.

Continue to press for rights in ASEAN. The ASEAN members are a varied lot of countries when it comes to democracy and human rights. Unfortunately, their human rights body, the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), has not been particularly effective. The United States should keep funding activities to strengthen ASEAN’s work on rule of law and human rights issues while working with individual countries to improve their records. If the United States fails to stand for its principles, it will inadvertently condone the way China does business — without regard to corruption, authoritarianism, environmental damage, or societal rights. In the long run, this will make ASEAN, and the U.S. relationship with the group of countries, weaker. Unfortunately, Trump’s decision to invite Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte and Thailand’s coup leader, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-Ocha, send a message that the United States has lowered its standards on human rights.

YSEALI is gold — treat it that way. As Vice President Mike Pence discovered for himself, the Young Southeast Asia Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) members are amazing young people. He met with several, including Dissa Ahdanisa, an Indonesian woman who is working to bring jobs to deaf people in the region. YSEALI — the goal of which is to bring together rising leaders in ASEAN — now has over 100,000 members across the 10 member states. This program is helping to build an ASEAN identity and lets the United States get to know the business, government, civic, and cultural leaders of tomorrow. It’s not an expensive program, but with the Trump administration proposing cutting roughly one-third of the entire State Department budget, it’s hard to imagine that funding for YSEALI won’t take a hit.

Commend progress on transnational challenges and press for more. One of ASEAN’s finest moments in recent years was adopting a binding convention on human trafficking at the end of 2015 that upholds international standards. ASEAN could do more when it comes to terrorism. While there is no shortage of political will, ASEAN governments need to coordinate more closely on tactics. The United States should consider instituting programs that incentivize ASEAN cooperation. But the Trump administration needs to recognize that, in addition to the damage its proposed Muslim ban does at home, it also damages U.S. interests in Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia and Malaysia that are Muslim majority.

Show up. With ASEAN, there is no substitute for showing up. The presence of U.S. officials ensures that American interests are advanced and reassures a region that craves Washington’s attention. But the engagement must be prudent: Trump going to the Philippines and Vietnam in the Fall for the U.S.-ASEAN, East Asia and APEC summits is the right move; inviting Duterte and Prayut to the U.S. sends the wrong message.

One increasingly urgent challenge will be ensuring that U.S. officials below the president show up at these meetings. To date, there are no nominees for ambassadors to ASEAN itself or Singapore, a key member, and no senior Trump appointees in charge of Asia at the State or Defense Departments.

The Trump administration is off to a good start on the optics and the box-checking with ASEAN. These steps, and a real commitment to leading and engaging in Asia will instill confidence in regional partners and perhaps begin to steady Trump’s haphazard Asia policy.

Photo credit:  NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images