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Does ASEAN matter to the US?

Updated On: Feb 07, 2006

United States was being criticized for not paying enough attention to Southeast Asia and for adopting a heavy-handed attitude to human rights and democracy.

Singapore’s Ambassador to the US, Professor Chan Heng Chee contrasted the roles of China in Southeast Asia with that of the US at the Asia Society of Texas annual ambassadors’ conference last Friday. She complimented China for its diplomatic engagement of the region and its willingness to help during critical times.

China has launched a ‘liberal foreign policy’ to win friends and influence. ASEAN’s response has been positive to this win-win approach,’ said Prof Chan.

There has been a growing concern on the way that US is dealing with Southeast Asia. Tracing back to the 1997 financial crisis, many in ASEAN were shocked byUS failure to help Thailand tide the currency crisis and the ‘American prescription’ of harsh measures through the International Monetary Fund on countries affected by the crisis.

Mr Roy, a former US ambassador to ChinaIndonesia and Singapore added that “the seed of America’s exclusion from the inaugural East Asia Summit last December was sown by its inadequate response to the Asian financial crisis.”

September 11, 2001 was another turning point when US turned its attention towards the war of terrorism. The unease was compounded by the chastisement on the lack of human rights and democracy in Southeast Asia. In particular, the issue of Myanmar prevented the US from engaging ASEAN fully.

Washington has also underestimated the importance of ASEAN as a regional grouping in its bilateral strategies with individual countries. As a result of its emphasis on domestic political factors, US refused to sign ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation and thus, barred from the East Asia Summit.

The absence of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the ASEAN Regional Forum in Vientiane last July was perceived as a snub on the region.

However, relations between US and ASEAN are expected to improve with the first of an annual summit in November which will bring together US President George Bush and the leaders of the seven ASEAN members (SingaporeMalaysiaIndonesiaBruneiThailandPhilippines and Vietnam) who are also part of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) grouping.  The meeting will be held before the APEC Forum in Hanoi.

‘We need to reinvigorate interest in ASEAN’ Mr Roy pointed out. An Asian expert at the Hawaii-based East-West Center, Mr McNally also expressed that, ‘Many countries in ASEAN are keen to keep the United States engaged in the region. They feel a need to balance the growing power of China.’

However, arrangements for the summit must be handled carefully to avoid offending CambodiaLaos and Myanmar who will be excluded as they are not part of the APEC grouping. Myanmar remains as a problem as under the US law, dealings with the Yangon military regime are effectively banned.

“The nice part is that the absence of Myanmar, as well as Cambodia and Laos, does not have to be finessed because they are not APEC members. This makes it politically comfortable for both sides”, said Mr Cossa, president of the Hawaii-based Pacific Forum CSIS.

Though the annual summit will be able to boost US and ASEAN ties, some experts felt that the existing US-ASEAN 7 format may threaten regional unity and could serve as an irritant in relations with Southeast Asian partners.

Sources:

China scores for its dealings with ASEAN (The Straits Times, 6 Feb)

* US and ASEAN to boost ties with annual summit (The Star, 4 Feb)