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Opinion

In Asia, the US should look beyond China and India

Future opportunity for US growth depends on whether President Obama focuses on Southeast Asia, not just China and India.

By Ernest Z. Bower / May 3, 2010



Washington

If the United States is to have a sustainable toehold in Asia, Washington has to start paying serious attention to some countries in the region that are not China or India.

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There are 10 other countries in particular that hold the key to America’s central role in all of Asia. Engaging with them is a must for US prosperity and national security. That’s why President Obama must follow through on his overtures to the region and carve out time to attend the second ever US-ASEAN summit, this year.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) began in 1967 to accelerate economic growth and collaboration in the region. The group is made up of 10 countries in Southeast Asia: Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Burma (Myanmar), the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. About 650 million people live in the region, and each year gross domestic product adds up to around $1.5 trillion. The Philippines and Thailand are two longtime US treaty allies. According to the latest US Department of Commerce figures, which were for 2008, the US had $153 billion invested in ASEAN, $53 billion in China, and $14 billion in India.

Strategically, strong relations with ASEAN are vital to American interests in Asia. Both Mr. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton seem to be starting to recognize this. Secretary Clinton outlined core US principles for Asian regional architecture in Honolulu earlier this year. And Obama signed the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation and declared that US interests in Southeast Asia are significant enough for annual presidential focus.

But lip service is only a beginning.

Strong ties with ASEAN are the metaphorical equivalent of strong core muscles. They are fundamental to the effective functioning of the other vital aspects of US policy in Asia, including engaging, supporting, and balancing the rapid transformation of both China and India onto the regional and global stage.

The president has a lot to gain from attending the US-ASEAN Leaders Summit. Obama himself initiated the first US-ASEAN Summit last November in Singapore. It was the first time a US president met directly with the leaders of all 10 ASEAN countries. And it was a smart move. ASEAN meets regularly with China, Japan, Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and India.

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