IDSA COMMENT

The Second US-ASEAN Leaders’ Meeting in New York

October 7, 2010

The second US-ASEAN Leaders’ Meeting in New York held on September 24, on the margins of the annual 65th UN General Assembly has brought the subregional multilateral forum (ASEAN) into the international spotlight. Is it a recognition of ASEAN’s growth in strategic and economic significance? Or is it prompted by a common concern at the growing influence of China in the region, especially in the South China Sea? Or is this a warm-up to US participation in the East Asia Summit next year?

The meeting which was co-chaired by the President of Vietnam Nguyen Minh Triet in his capacity as Chairman of ASEAN and by US President Barack Obama was perhaps prompted by all the above concerns and more. The inaugural US-ASEAN summit was held in Singapore in November 2009 (on the margins of the APEC summit). The US interacts with ASEAN as a Dialogue Partner, at the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus), and in 2011 it is scheduled to meet in the EAS.

The US seeks to raise the current interaction to the level of a strategic partnership, the path to which was cleared with US accession to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) in 2009. Besides, the US named its first Ambassador to ASEAN and declared its plan to open its Mission to ASEAN in Jakarta. Here, it may be useful to remember that the ASEAN caucus at the UN meets regularly to coordinate policy: Washington only made use of the General Assembly session in New York to promote what it perceives to be its policy interests. At this Meeting, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s absence was noticed given that Indonesia is the next ASEAN chair. Yudhoyono was of course not present due to Indonesia’s own domestic compulsions and not as a retaliatory measure against Obama’s apparent neglect of Indonesia.

US Objectives

The ASEAN will continue to rely on the US for security, and for technology and market besides continuing to retain its relevance for the region as a ‘Tertius’ power (the third party).1 The US, on its part, is coping with the twin challenge of a declining economy and the rise of China. US academia acknowledges neglect of this region due to preoccupation with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which has provided China an opportunity to assert its influence in the wider East Asian region.

Strategic: The US may now be increasingly putting greater faith in the ‘security first’ paradigm which is more in sync with the ASEAN ethos and has relevance for its relations with Myanmar. The Joint Statement of the US ASEAN Leaders Meeting highlighted the following strategic issues:

  1. Without naming the South China Sea, leaders in the statement “reaffirmed the importance of regional peace and stability, maritime security, unimpeded commerce, and freedom of navigation, in accordance with relevant universally agreed principles of international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and other international maritime law, and the peaceful settlement of disputes.”
  2. The Southeast Asian countries which are lower riparian countries welcomed the involvement of the United States in the Lower Mekong Initiative. Perhaps this balancing is considered necessary at a time when Chinese actions upstream threaten to affect the Mekong resources and flow.
  3. On Myanmar, the statement welcomed the continued US engagement and called for free and fair elections in Myanmar and stated that Myanmar should work together with ASEAN and the UN in the process of national reconciliation. Perhaps there is a creeping realisation in the Obama Administration that US-ASEAN relations need no longer be held hostage to the demand for democratisation and human rights in Myanmar

Economic: China has enmeshed Southeast Asia economically (in terms of both trade and investment). China’s rise is often cited as a driver of growth in Southeast Asia. Bilateral trade and investment have shown a marked rise in recent years. On the other hand, the US continues to be one of the major trading partners of ASEAN. The US investment in ASEAN is thrice that in China and ten times that in India. The Trade and Investment Framework Agreement in 2006 forms the basis of the continuing economic relationship. Another vehicle for the promotion of economic cooperation is the ASEAN Development Vision to Advance National Cooperation and Economic Integration (ADVANCE) programme.

ASEAN, with a combined GDP of $1.5 trillion, is the fourth largest market for US exports. US Merchandise Exports to ASEAN increased from $16.06 billion in 1989 to $66.89 billion in 2008, amounting to a 316 per cent change (though it declined to $53.778 billion in 2009). US Merchandise Imports from ASEAN increased from $24.77 billion in 1989 to $110.14 billion in 2008, amounting to a 344 per cent change (though it declined somewhat in 2009 to $92.099 billion in 2009). In 2006 the ASEAN-US Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) was signed and American corporations interact with ASEAN Business Council.

Table: USA: Exports to /Imports from ASEAN
1989-2009 in US$ billion
Year Exports Imports
1989 16.060 24.771
1990 18.974 27.250
1991 20.802 28.947
1992 23.994 36.093
1993 28.316 42.317
1994 32.121 52.084
1995 39.955 62.138
1996 43.631 66.428
1997 48.271 71.012
1998 39.367 73.394
1999 39.940 77.658
2000 47.139 87.944
2001 43.788 76.384
2002 41.923 78.338
2003 45.244 81.849
2004 47.604 88.257
2005 49.460 98.914
2006 56.117 111.200
2007 59.512 111.007
2008 66.893 110.141
2009 53.778 92.099

Source: US Department of Commerce, Trade Statistics Express
http://tse.export.gov/ Accessed on September 23, 2010.

Conclusion

The latest US-ASEAN Summit yet again highlights ASEAN’s need to hedge/balance an economically, politically and militarily rising China. The United States will continue to have an important place in the regional multilateral architecture: even though the US is not considered as a part of East Asia it is very much a part of the larger Asia-Pacific. The Joint Statement resolved to hold the next meeting in conjunction with the 2011 East Asia Summit. It probably does not mean that ASEAN will give up being in the driver’s seat -despite the two recent Japanese and Australian proposals on regional architectural framework. ASEAN would be unwilling to compromise on its long standing principles of inclusiveness and the ‘ASEAN way’.

South China Sea issues were uppermost in their minds when Southeast Asian leaders met in New York. However, ASEAN’s diffidence in naming “South China Sea” in the Joint Statement following the Chinese Foreign Minister’s protestations in August that the US was ganging up against China shows that it would require determination to contest China’s claims in the South China Sea which Beijing now considers a core interest on par with Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang.

There is a growing acceptance that encouraging Myanmar to develop stakes in the international system may be more effective in moderating its behaviour than attempting to impose Western ideas of democracy.

Obama’s proactive approach towards the region is as much to reassure ASEAN as it is to protect the United States’ flagging interests. It is sheer bravado to claim (as Hoshino has done) to claim that the US is not greatly concerned about China’s strong ties with Myanmar because “there is little at stake in terms of national interests.” It is difficult to see how US interests could remain unscathed if the Chinese Navy has regular access to the Indian Ocean through Myanmar.

  1. 1. The concept of Tertius (the third element or party or literally ‘the third who enjoys’) was set out by 20th century sociologist Georg Simmels. He maintained that the tertius enjoys deep relations with each member of the group but because the members of the group do not have this depth of relationship among themselves (lacking trust) it confers a relational advantage on the tertius. For an elaboration see, Deepak Nair, “Obama’s America: Why it is likely to endure in Asia,” RSIS Commentaries, Singapore, November 18, 2009.