Improve US Ties With ASEAN

UNITED States policy toward East Asia is rightly focused on Japan, China, and Korea. But the US will lose greatly if it does not give the countries of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), which comprises Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and the Philippines - the attention they deserve.

ASEAN was established in 1967 to promote political and economic cooperation. But the region's stability and prosperity cannot be taken for granted. The end of the cold war, the US withdrawal from the Philippines, and questions about the future roles of China and Japan have injected uncertainties.

US-ASEAN economic ties are considerable. The ASEAN states are the fifth largest US export market. Combined they took $24 billion worth of US exports in 1992 (more than 5 percent of total US exports), supporting an estimated 480,000 US jobs. But a US trade deficit of $12 billion in 1992 shows that we can do better. The opportunity for more US exports is obvious: By the year 2010, ASEAN's population of 435 million will include 80 million or 90 million who enjoy affluence.

ASEAN now has a clear focus on regional trade and investment. It is working toward the establishment of an ASEAN Free Trade Area for manufactured products by the year 2007 and is active in the Uruguay Round and the new Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum. While we must be alert to discrimination against US exports, the overall thrust of ASEAN's efforts are on behalf of trade liberalization.

Because it straddles strategic sealanes between the Pacific and Indian Oceans, the ASEAN region is also critical to US security. ASEAN worked closely with the US and others to bring peace to Cambodia. It is also developing a new security forum that is likely to bring together the US, Canada, Japan, Korea, China, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, and Vietnam to discuss security issues.

Despite longtime ties to ASEAN countries, the US has rarely given them high-level attention. Deputy Secretary of State Clifton Wharton's recent visit to ASEAN capitals helped correct that appearance. Yet a comprehensive US policy toward East Asia, including ASEAN, is vital.

First, sound relations with Japan and China must underpin US strategy. The two giants are crucial; problems between them and the US will affect the entire region.

Second, the US should work to sustain the region's economic growth. Success in the Uruguay Round will be crucial. Creating a level playing field for US trade and investment must be the US priority, and the US should make full use of the dialogue between our trade negotiators and ASEAN and within APEC to enhance trade liberalization.

Third, the US should retain a strong US commitment to Asia's security. ASEAN does not seek US security guarantees but welcomes a continued US regional presence.

Fourth, the US must look beyond traditional donor-recipient relationships with the ASEAN states. Except for the Philippines, these nations are ambivalent about foreign aid. Increasingly, "trade not aid" will be their slogan and it should be ours.

Fifth, more people-to-people contacts will help promote democratic values and greater respect for human rights. Increased US broadcasting to the region is also worthwhile.

The opportunities in ASEAN for the US will not come our way automatically. We will have to be competitive, and we must sharpen our Asian expertise. Our future economic well-being will require a keener understanding of Asia and full partnership with our ASEAN friends in their economic progress.

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