REVIEW: Article

ASEAN: Creating the Rules-Based Architecture in Asia

In my second week on the job as the second United States Ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), I headed to Naypyidaw, Burma to meet President Obama at the East Asia Summit. There I witnessed one of the many reasons the United States has increased its engagement with ASEAN:  ASEAN convenes Asia.

In 1967, leaders of five nations formed ASEAN, renouncing the violence that had characterized their relationships and dedicating themselves to furthering the prosperity of the region. Five more countries joined in the intervening decades and now ASEAN’s Member States, with a total population of some 625 million, are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.  ASEAN has delivered well on its primary mission: to keep the peace among a group of member states with huge diversity in levels of economic development, political systems, cultures, religions, and size. This foundation of geopolitical stability has allowed the economies in Southeast Asia to take off and lift tens of millions out of poverty. As a whole, ASEAN has enjoyed the third highest growth rate in the world over the past decade.

2015 is a big year for ASEAN, with the launch of the ASEAN Community, including the ASEAN Economic Community, and the tenth anniversary of the East Asia Summit. 

This step is in keeping with our quick tempo. While the United States has been an official partner to ASEAN since 1977, the Obama administration stepped up our diplomacy as part of the Rebalance to Asia policy. In June 2010, the United States became the first non-ASEAN country to establish a dedicated Mission to ASEAN in Jakarta, and President Obama is the first American President to meet regularly with all ten heads of state of ASEAN as well as attend the East Asia Summit with leaders of ASEAN plus seven other “dialogue” partners: Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, and Russia. 

ASEAN provides multiple channels for discussions of critical issues related to politics, defense, economics, energy, and the environment. As Secretary Kerry said when he attended the ASEAN Regional Forum in Kuala Lumpur in August: “ASEAN is really at the very center at the Asia Pacific’s multilateral architecture. And that is where the United States of America wants it to remain.” In a region with many major powers, ASEAN plays a stabilizing role.

ASEAN is ground zero of the rules-based order in Asia that America supports. Harmonizing rules, standards, and forums for cooperation—on issues ranging from aviation to zoonotic disease—is ASEAN’s daily occupation. The ASEAN Charter itself reveals that one of the purposes of ASEAN is to “enhance good governance and the rule of law” and that one of ASEAN’s principles is to uphold international law.

International maritime law is an important part of this commitment because over $5 trillion in global trade passes through regional waterways, including the South China Sea, each year. Four of ASEAN’s members are claimants in the South China Sea territorial and maritime disputes, and ASEAN has voiced its “serious concern” about China’s massive land reclamation program. As a major maritime power, America has a national interest in peace and stability, freedom of navigation and overflight, the free flow of lawful com­merce, and the peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with international law as reflected in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. These are interests all of us in the region share, and no country will benefit from further land reclamation, con­struc­tion, and militarization. 

Because it is multilateral, ASEAN also makes a useful coordinating partner on common transnational challenges. For instance, later this year, ASEAN will endorse a convention on trafficking in persons, setting clear standards for the ten nation states to implement in their national legislation, and the United States will help with that process. Finally, engagement with ASEAN solidifies our bilateral relationships with each of the ten individual countries by broadening our points of contact and demonstrating our commitment to an institution they value.

Beyond politics and security, many Americans are surprised to learn our economy is closely linked to ASEAN and that US businesses invest considerably more in Southeast Asia than they do in China. ASEAN-American two-way trade is hefty; if ASEAN were a country, it would be America’s fourth largest trading partner. Trade with ASEAN means over half a million jobs in the United States, profits for our companies, and products for our consumers. American companies are the number one investor in the ASEAN region and their over $200 billion in Foreign Direct Investment is more than the combined investments from companies from the next three countries combined. This robust economic relationship is set to continue as the economic future looks very bright in Southeast Asia with a rapidly growing middle class and young work force. Moreover, the ASEAN Economic Community will continue to lower barriers to trade, services, skilled labor, and capital flows, creating opportunities for ASEAN and American businesses.

Because of all these interests, and our numerous cultural and people-to-people ties, the United States is investing deeply in ASEAN and its ten member nations. In total, we have spent over $4 billion over the last five years on development. We support access to clean drinking water for 3.5 million people in ASEAN, and will provide food for 170,000 undernourished children in Laos over the next few years. We have trained 30,000 ASEAN officials in natural resource management and have assisted in fisheries management and protection of ocean biodiversity. We have helped preserve forests and coastal lands equal in size to that of the entire state of Oregon. Over the past ten years, the Fulbright Program has awarded about 7,000 grants for exchanges of scholars between the United States and ASEAN. Further, in a terrific partnership with the US-ASEAN Business Council, the United States has trained over 3,500 Southeast Asian owners of small and medium-sized business (SMEs) in ten ASEAN countries, increasing professional ability in areas like e-commerce. Finally, one of the programs that excites me the most is the Young Southeast Asia Leaders Initiative. Now boasting 35,000 members across all ten ASEAN member states, the program aims to cultivate the next generation of ASEAN leaders, bringing them closer to each other and to us.

I am only the second resident Ambassador to ASEAN and the Mission is still young. We are striving to forge stronger ties with this unique and significant multilateral institution and the ten ASEAN countries, working on issues that matter to us all. Together we are working to further our common goals of a unified, central ASEAN and a rules-based, peaceful, prosperous Southeast Asia that upholds the rule of law and human rights for its people.

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United States Ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations