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.

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.

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.

Major milestones come from those summits: (1) effective regional economic integration – ASEAN now has free-trade agreements with all of the aforementioned countries, (2) the beginning of regional security architecture, and (3) transnational issues – such as climate change and nuclear nonproliferation.

If the US is absent, it could be excluded from a future Asian “consensus” on such key issues.

If he attends, however, Obama could continue to rack up support for America’s positions.

He could also make substantial progress on trade, by supporting increased ASEAN involvement in the Transpacific Partnership – one of very few trade arrows in the administration’s quiver. Doing so would link US economic growth to Asia, which is expected to grow at more than two times the rate of the Western economies over the next several years, according to the World Bank.

By initiating the first US-ASEAN Summit, Obama laid down a clear marker that America recognized its significant stake in Southeast Asia and wasn’t ceding the region to China’s nouveau Monroe Doctrine.

He also set the stage for working with the region’s leaders on key issues such as climate change, fighting terrorism, and creating a channel for US assistance supporting the development of regional standards – a key factor for US exports and investments in the region.

The organizers of the summit are currently holding off on setting a date until they hear from the US president. It’s worth fitting into his heavy schedule:

At the very least Obama could convince the ASEAN leaders to meet him in Hanoi, Vietnam, after the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Japan in November. That way he would reinforce the reformers in Vietnam who are facing stiff competition from the hyperconservative elders of the Communist Party there. By following through on his commitment for the US to remain engaged in Southeast Asia he would prove the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and reactionary analysts in Beijing wrong.

Another option is to invite the ASEAN leaders to Washington or Hawaii to hold the US-ASEAN Leaders Summit on American soil before or after they visit the US for the annual United Nations General Assembly meeting in September.

A third option is to piggyback on his visits to Indonesia, Australia, and Guam in June or to India in October.

If Obama failed to show up it would be a serious blow to relations in Asia.

It would not only fulfill predictions made by interlocutors in China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs that the US is only rhetorically, not substantively, committed to the region, but it would fuel ASEAN’s anxieties about the reliability of the US as a forward-deployed partner in the Pacific.

Following through on his overtures in Asia is core to sustaining a serious US presence in the region. Making time for the ASEAN summit, may seem like a small thing, but Obama’s attendance would benefit the US in the long run.

Ernest Z. Bower is director of the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington

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