Published on February 25, 2008
Throughout the Bush administration's time in office, terrorism has been the one issue that dictated every move in US diplomacy. After the tragic events of September 11, Southeast Asia became a second front in the war on terror and the US grew eager to forge closer ties with the region. However, when the US invaded Iraq in 2003, the entire counter-terrorism effort in the region backfired. Anti-American sentiment grew, and regional friends to take part in the US-led "coalition of the willing" were hard to come by with the exception of Singapore.
Since then the US has judged the value of its friendship by the level of cooperation countries provide on terrorism, and other stringent measures demanded by Washington. This absolutist approach enabled other major powers, such as China and even Russia, to establish closer political ties in the region.
China continues to consolidate its relations as never before with its consultative approach to diplomacy with Asean. After the joint Asean statement criticising China's assertiveness over the Mischief Reef back in March 1995, Beijing has been working hard to mend fences with the grouping through countless new initiatives. At this juncture, China-Asean relations are extensive at all levels.
The next US president must come to grips with the emerging dynamics in the region and the vision of the Asean community, which is set for 2015. One visible shift is that the US is no longer the preponderant power, a status that has gone unchallenged for almost half a century following World War II. With the combined emergence of China and India, the region is learning to adjust quickly to this new strategic environment.
While the Burmese political quagmire remains central to US-Asean ties, both sides must be aware that other bilateral issues need to be attended to seriously as well, especially those related to non-traditional issues such as natural disasters, infectious diseases and pandemics, climate change and energy security.
One of the best ways to re-engage US-Asean relations is to make sure that meetings between leaders of the two sides are held regularly. The second Bush administration has a dismal record of attendance at meetings with Asean. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice missed two Asean ministerial meetings. Worse, President George W Bush postponed a summit with his Asean counterparts at the last minute, reinforcing the negative impression that the region is not and never will be on the list of US priorities.
To jumpstart this renewal process it is crucial that the next US administration appoints an Asean envoy following the Senate resolution nearly two years ago. It will augur well with the planned adoption of a permanent representative system at the Jakarta-based Asean Secretariat. Besides mitigating the fallout from the US's short attention span, it would serve as a role model for other non-Asean countries.
Back in 2003, it was China that set the ball rolling when it became the first non-Asean nation to accede to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. Currently 19 countries have signed the regional code of conduct. The US is studying the possibility of doing so.
After 30 years of diplomatic relations with Asean, the US remains the only dialogue partner that has not institutionalised the summit meeting. As the Asean chair, Singapore is exploring the possibility of having Bush drop by in the region, either during his trip to Hokkaido in July for the G-8 Summit or in August for the Beijing Olympics. If the meeting takes place after July, Thailand, as the new Asean chair, will host it.
The new US administration must understand that Asean-US relations still have major room for improvement on their own without competing with Asean-China relations. But Washington must be more attentive, if not more patient, in identifying new areas of cooperation that would help Asean to integrate and strengthen its future community. This would impact on overall Asean-US ties.
To be fair, in the past two years, after decades of trial and error, the US government has approached Asean with more holistic and focused programmes. Overseen by the UN Agency of International Development, an assistance package worth US$150 million (Bt4.8 billion) has been initiated to assist the grouping's capacity building. The next US president must continue to strengthen this approach.
In addition, given its vast resources, expertise and readiness, emergency relief operations could be a niche area for the US to develop and strengthen. The US government did much to assist with the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami and future prevention programmes.
Since he has taken Asean's helm, Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan has repeatedly called for more US engagement in the region. He argued that Asean has been and will continue to be the fulcrum of power in the region and the US needs to be present.
For this to happen, one ticklish question must be asked: What has Asean done to re-engage with the US? Quite often, US policy-makers feel that Asean has deliberately abandoned the US, leaving Washington behind in various regional schemes. Three years after the establishment of the East Asian Summit, Asean leaders have yet to explain what this new forum means to the US.
The US is a key supporter of the region-wide security group, the Asean Regional Forum (ARF), and demands a greater role for non-Asean members in pushing the forum to the next level. However, Asean continues to resist the idea of co-chairing the ARF, fearing it would lose its focus and evolutionary pace of development. Asean leaders still feel heartache recalling how the iron-willed US shifted the trade-oriented Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation into a forum jam-packed with counter-terrorism measures following 9/11.
In the past, the US tended to perceive any regional arrangement - either in trade or security - in which it wasn't involved as a sinister ploy to undermine America. Better and increased, if not more frank, dialogue is pivotal to prevent ambiguities and misunderstandings.