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3-on-3 Evan Feigenbaum: US needs a robust Southeast Asian strategy

06 Aug 3-on-3 Evan Feigenbaum: US needs a robust Southeast Asian strategy

We spoke with Dr. Evan Feigenbaum, Vice Chairman, Paulson Institute and former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State. Dr. Feigenbaum gave an evening talk at the SIIA on the subject of “What is the USA’s role in Asia’s new order?” on 22 July 2015. We asked him about his views on the United States’ security and economic relations with Southeast Asia.

Q. What issues are likely to be a priority during the upcoming meeting between the U.S. and China Presidents in September?

Dr. Feigenbaum: I think if we’re very candid about it – this is a very rough period in U.S.-China relations. And that is important, because the two sides have clashing security concerns. So I think the first step is to stabilise the relationship, by getting some of the tougher strategic issues out on the table…one of those obviously is the South China Sea.

The second, really, is cybersecurity, which has the potential to drive the entire relationship…not completely off the rails, but could derail it in serious ways. What’s in the news there is the government to government allegations of spying. But the reality is corporate America, which lends a lot of balance to the U.S.-China relationship, increasingly sees China as a real key partner in the cybersecurity challenge. And so that threatens to remove business as part of that balance, which threatens the relationship.

Beyond that, I think the challenge is really to build a concrete record of cooperation, to expand on that, which means finding some vehicles. The wost important of those in my view, which would fit in economic cooperation and thus mitigate some of the security competition is if we move forward on the idea of a Bilateral Investment Treaty between the United States and China. China needs it because it’s an external source of pressure for domestic reform, the U.S. is looking for more sectoral opening and changes in competition policy in China.

Q. Is the U.S. promise of closer military and security ties with its allies enough to assure Asia of America’s commitment to the region?

Dr. Feigenbaum: Well, it’s important, but it’s clearly not enough. If you think about pillars of U.S. leadership in Asia in the post-war period, what’s made the United States a leader in the region is that it’s been a provider of security-related public goods, through alliances and forward deployed military presence, but also economic-related public goods forced by being the principle source of demand by which Asian economies that are export-led have been able to power their way towards rapid growth, also by being the leader on regionalisation and globalisation. And when I look at the situation in the Asia-Pacific, there’s really no basis for collective security in the Pacific, not until at minimum the issue of Korea’s reunification is resolved.

So that being the case, the United States was, is, and as far as I can see, will continue to be an important provider of security-related public goods. So I think the danger is that the U.S. just ends up as a security provider in the region. What that means is, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) needs to get done. But TPP can’t just be the only answer to that question. Beyond TPP the United States needs a robust economic statecraft in the region, and that includes everything from Bilateral Investment Treaties with China and India to sectoral agreeements in things like services, public-private partnerships, to compensate but also to really thrust the United States back from the sidelines back into economic diplomacy.

Q. How will the state of Sino-U.S. relations affect ASEAN’s role in the regional architecture?

Dr. Feigenbaum: Well, it affects ASEAN very directly as no member of ASEAN wants a very volatile or much less a very hostile U.S.-China relationship. Countries in this region are trying to mantain relations with both. I think many ASEAN countries, though not all of them, there clearly are concerns about China’s security choices and China’s security behaviour. Some of that is a function of the South China Sea – the Philippines and Vietnam – but I think it extends beyond those countries, to other ASEAN members as well. So the problem is how to fit pan-Asian regionalism through which ASEAN, China, and others including Japan do a lot of their interaction, with Trans-Pacific regionalism with the United States. And for ASEAN the challenge is how to keep the United States engaged. We’re sitting here in Singapore, and Singapore, both when Mr. Lee Kuan Yew was alive and since then has been very robust about encouraging the United States to play an active role in this part of the world. So that’s one thing ASEAN’s going to want to do.

But I think the real choices are for the United States and not just for ASEAN. And there, a lot of pan-Asian regionalism is going to move forward regardless of American views and preferences. This has a long pedigree, it was Japan who was pushing Asian monetary union in the 1990s, China is now pushing its own pan-Asian ideas, Prime Minister Mahathir of Malaysia used to push his own pan-regional ideas, so if you think some of this is going to go forward, then it’s not feasible for the United States to be in every room and conversation. The United States, working with ASEAN and other partners like Japan, has to figure out what it’s got to have, and what is nice to have. Where is it essential that the United States be in the room, and where can the U.S. support Asia in some Asian institutions in the way that it supports European institutions?

But it also means that the United States has to bring it. As we say in the United States, it has to bring its game and really be active, not just in the region at large but in Southeast Asia in particular. There’s a lot that the United States and ASEAN, but in particular ASEAN countries individually can do. So the United States needs to have a robust Southeast Asian strategy, not just an ASEAN strategy, and an activist agenda as well.