By Ernest Z. Bower, Senior Adviser and Director, CSIS Southeast Asia Program
Approximately 40 hours ago, the White House made the decision to invite the ten heads of government from ASEAN to hold the 2nd US ASEAN Summit in New York. The leaders will meet over lunch from 12 noon through 2 PM. The focus will be augmented by a dialogue with America’s top policy leaders in a dialogue focused on the key pillars of US ASEAN common interests organized by CSIS and a dinner with American business leaders organized by the US ASEAN Business Council and the US Chamber of Commerce will cap off the day of intensive focus on the US ASEAN relationship.
Though I argued hard for the Summit to take place in Washington, D.C. — as did the Asia policy team within the Administration – that decision is done and it is time to move on. However, it is worth noting that the choice does further reveal one of the great ironies of American power under President Obama — while US soft power is potentially at a high point given the world’s impression of President Obama as a leader who reaches out and builds multilateral consensus, his political team is not letting him out of the box to use that power in regions of the world which could help address key issues keeping him focused at home – namely creating economic growth through expanded trade and establishing an enduring security framework in Asia.
The facts that the Summit will take place in New York, on US soil, and within a year of the inaugural conclave are significant and it is time to move the focus from venue, face and form to substance. President Obama and the ASEAN leaders will surely focus on trade and security issues as their top agenda items. ASEAN needs the US to play offense on trade again. It is America’s 4th largest overseas market and the most trade dependent region in the world with trade accounting for nearly 100% of aggregate GDP. ASEAN leaders will urge the President to pass the Korean US Free Trade Agreement (KORUS) which they see as the bellweather indicator on whether the Obama Administration will invest the political capital in trade as an engine of growth after US mid-term elections. They will also encourage the US to move forward on the Transpacific Parntership (TPP). ASEAN itself has work to do to bring the US to the table on a US ASEAN FTA. The region has be serious about coming the table willing to negotiate and not simply encouraging the US to help build capacity in lesser developed countries. On its part, the US needs to be practical and innovate in the process with ASEAN – it won’t be able to reach a US Singapore FTA gold standard agreement with all 10 countries (or 9 minus Burma for now) without some creative timeframes for countries who can’t meet the required high standards immediately.
On the security front, ASEAN needs a strong signal from the Commander in Chief of the US that he supports the framework laid out by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in Hanoi on a multilateral approach to resolving disputes in the South China Sea. This signal is vital for the region to have the confidence to stand together and encourage China to come to the table and discuss its needs and concerns with ASEAN – not only on a bilateral basis. ASEAN wants China to join the community of nations and move ahead through multilateral consensus especially on sensitive issues such as disputes over sovereignty. When ASEAN was formed in Bangkok in 1967, one of its early successes was in bringing a large and muscular Indonesia into its club without bloodshed or war. It can do so again with China, but only if the US stays engaged and strong.
The Summit discussion will also surely touch on ways the US and ASEAN can work to strengthen ASEAN itsself. ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan is a tremendously capable leader and diplomat. He is the first Secretary General with Ministerial rank. But he is managing an instituation with incredibly ambitious goals – the economic, security and cultural integration of a ten country region of nearly 650 million people — with a $14 million budget. The US and ASEAN are in the process of renewing a 5 year work plan which will seek to help build and strengthen the institution. Hopefully, President Obama can convince the ASEAN countries to invest more resources in the ASEAN Secretariat so it is further empowered to meet the goals laid out in the ASEAN Charter.
The stakes are high in New York, and the fact the 2nd US ASEAN Summit is taking place is significant. It is a strong signal that the US is finding its way to more comprehensive engagement in Asia and following through on its commitments to try to build an enduring Asia strategy using ASEAN as a foundation.