The U.S. Has Joined the Game in Southeast Asia

The leaders of Southeast Asia are about to open their annual meetings. Although it involves 10 heads of government, including two U.S. treaty allies, encompasses a $700 billion economy, and represents half a billion people -- it is an event that goes mostly unnoticed in Washington, D.C.

This is changing -- as well it should. The meetings, this year in the Philippines, are central to a new dynamism in East Asia. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is moving to speed development by integrating its economies, expanding its scope and strengthening its governance.

In turn, ASEAN’s vision is attracting the attention of other regional powers in East Asia and the Pacific.

ASEAN has concluded or is negotiating economic agreements with several countries in its immediate neighborhood, including China, South Korea and Japan. Every year, leaders from each of these countries join their 10 ASEAN counterparts for the annual gathering. And for the second year in a row, ASEAN will convene the East Asia Summit - a Chinese-inspired initiative intended to create a broader community of interests among the countries of the region.

U.S. engagement with ASEAN, by contrast, reached a low mark when in July 2005, when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice skipped an annual meeting with the ASEAN Foreign Ministers -- an opportunity for dialogue the U.S. had not missed since its inception in 1994.

But that is old news. The critics have had their day. The important thing is that in the 18 months since that decision, the U.S. has joined the game. It has always been very active in the region on a bilateral basis. It is now engaging ASEAN as an organization.

In November 2005, President Bush inaugurated his own annual meeting with ASEAN leaders. Our engagement with ASEAN is hampered by a major conflict over how the international community should respond to ongoing political repression in Burma. The meeting -- at APEC -- offered an elegant solution. Because Burma is not a member of APEC, choosing it as the venue permitted the president to meet with the seven who are APEC members while avoiding the official sanction that a presidential meeting with the Burmese would imply. The president made a priority of holding the same meeting at APEC in November again this year.

President Bush’s involvement has changed the tone of the relationship. It has proven good will in a way that only discussion among principals can. The summitry has also produced the ASEAN-US Enhanced Partnership to serve as the basis for closer cooperation. Among other things, this joint vision commits the U.S. to support the realization of ASEAN Economic Community by 2020 or earlier, conclude a trade and investment framework agreement (TIFA) with ASEAN, and send USTR to attend an annual meeting of Southeast Asian trade ministers. It also affirms the annual meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers as the priority forum for the discussion of regional security issues.

The U.S. has followed through on these commitments.

In August 2006, USTR Ambassador Susan Schwab attended the meeting of trade ministers and there signed a TIFA. The agreement identifies issues critical to ASEAN’s development and provides a regular venue for discussing them. Initially, the trade ministers are focusing on harmonizing select industry standards and facilitating trade flows. Helping the region build its trade-carrying capacity is a major initiative and helps support ASEAN integration. As important, however, is the statement that the TIFA makes. It demonstrates official U.S. interest in the economic life of the region. On the security side, Secretary Rice kept her promise to attend the 2006 meeting of foreign ministers.

As for the remainder of the Partnership, the parties have hammered out a detailed plan of action, and State and AID resources are already on the ground supporting it. Initiatives include a full time American-staffed technical assistance facility housed at the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta, counterterrorism cooperation, assistance with disaster management, and cooperation to combat trafficking in persons.

Long-term geopolitical stability in Asia depends on a strong ASEAN. It depends on an ASEAN that can keep pace with the development of its powerful neighbors. And it depends on the vigorous presence of the United States. When we behave as though we do not understand this, we tempt instability.

It is a relief to know that the administration appreciates what is at stake. It is to be commended for a policy that is striving to match that stake with an appropriate level of vigor. While reassuring today, however, the success of our approach to the dynamism of Southeast Asia will depend on sustaining our attention. It is the way we implement, develop and adapt over the next two years that will prove the depth of our commitment to ASEAN, and determine the legacy of this administration’s policy in Southeast Asia.

Walter Lohman is Senior Research Fellow for Southeast Asia in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.