What the US can (and can’t) do to keep Asean united

Simon Tay says as Southeast Asian leaders prepare for the upcoming US summit, the Obama administration will need to work to balance the needs of the group’s diverse membership while seeking to avoid antagonising Beijing, particularly over South China Sea disputes

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 February, 2016, 12:00pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 February, 2016, 12:00pm

Asean leaders are due to converge in the US for a summit with President Barack Obama this month. The Sunnylands summit, late in Obama’s last term in office, is a marker of the American pivot to the region. His administration should be credited with giving closer attention not just to giants like China, Japan and India, but also to the 10 medium-sized and smaller countries of the region.

READ MORE: US says Asean summit Obama plans to host this month is ‘not anti-China’

It was Obama, after all, who inaugurated the US-Asean leaders’ meeting in 2009, and evolved it into a series of summits.

If Washington can truly support the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as the hub for the wider region, a greater sense of participation and less conflict can be the result. The new Asean Community, while far from perfect, shows greater economic cooperation and habits of peaceful cooperation.

Many may think that the US support for Asean unity is merely instrumental, a rallying call against Beijing

Just last month, US Secretary of State John Kerry called for Asean unity while visiting Laos, the current chair of the group. But reaching out can be read in the context of controversies over the South China Sea, where China has claims to territories that overlap and conflict with claims by four Asean member states.

Very recently, US forces conducted a freedom of navigation exercise into waters that China claims. Military alliances in the region, especially with Japan and the Philippines, have also been re-emphasised. Many may therefore think that the US support for Asean unity is merely instrumental, a rallying call against Beijing.

To give the US-Asean relationship a stronger foundation, there are things that can and should be done by the US, as well as things that should be avoided.

On the South China Sea issue, Washington should support Asean efforts to negotiate a code of conduct with China, to prevent escalation. But it must be a united Asean that leads on this; the group’s position cannot be dictated by any single claimant to the disputed areas. Nor will it help if China seems confronted by America and its allies.

READ MORE: California, here we come: date set for first-ever Asean summit hosted by a US president

Just as importantly, there are other areas in which the US should more actively promote cooperation. Climate change is one. The Obama administration has made notable headway with Beijing and also established a dialogue with Indonesia, the largest emitter of climate change gases in Asean. Following the Paris conference on climate change in December, further efforts should be made for cooperation between the US, China and Asean as a whole.

There are also things that might negatively affect the group’s relations with the US. One is to overemphasise democracy – no doubt a vital part of US foreign policy but something practised only among some Asean countries.

After the 2015 military coup in Thailand, America has cold-shouldered its erstwhile treaty ally. If the current government of Prayuth Chan-ocha feels ostracised by the US, there is every reason for China’s considerable influence to grow further.

The Obama administration should instead balance its approach with a dash of that other American characteristic – pragmatism. Look at Kerry’s January visit to Laos and Cambodia, neither of which are bastions of democracy.

Consider especially the US engagement with Vietnam, which remains a socialist party state. Rather than criticism, Vietnam has been brought into the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the treaty that the Obama administration has pushed as the main economic pillar in its engagement with Asia. The TPP illustrates how American initiatives can sometimes inadvertently undercut Asean unity.

READ MORE: 40 per cent of world’s economy signs up to TPP trade pact that Obama says ‘allows US, not China to write the rules of the road’

The TPP includes 12 countries in the Asia-Pacific region, but only four Asean members – Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam. It has been heralded as a “new age” treaty that creates stricter requirements for deeper integration. There are concerns, therefore, that the economic and trade effects it fosters will be inconsistent with Asean’s own efforts at developing an economic community with an integrated production base.

To make US-Asean engagement work, the Obama administration must look beyond the South China Sea

This is especially as the partnership will connect those four Asean members more deeply with the US and also Japan, two major economies, while leaving others out. It would help if the US were to actively support the Asean Economic Community as well as encourage more members to enter the TPP.

Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo has already said this publicly after his bilateral meeting with Obama late in 2015. There are signs, too, that the Philippines is also considering such a move.

Even more importantly, Thailand should accept and be accepted into the treaty. Even if a military-backed government is in charge, there is clear economic logic to support this. Of the three, Thailand’s economy is the most integrated with the rest of Asean, and Japan.

Coming into the TPP will not be easy. Even for the 12 members, the coming months will see whether domestic lawmakers are willing to ratify what has been negotiated. However, discussions on new members can start in parallel as a key economic engagement with the Asean countries not already part of the agreement.

READ MORE: First steps for Trans-Pacific Partnership, or Obama’s ‘Anything but China’ trade pact

To secure US Congress support for the TPP, the Obama administration will no doubt argue that it is essential to America’s pivot. Support for Asean unity, which the upcoming summit signifies, should be another reason.

To make US-Asean engagement work, Obama must look beyond the South China Sea. Engagement must be built on a broader foundation, on issues that are intrinsic to the group itself. Much will depend on whether America can truly engage Asean’s diverse membership.

Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, an independent and globally ranked think tank, and associate professor at the National University of Singapore Faculty of Law