Why US should now take centre stage on Asean

Sathish Govind

The US appears to be taking a backseat in world affairs with President Trump declaring that as a nation, it is not going to allow itself to be exploited.

The US appears to be taking a backseat in world affairs with President Trump declaring that as a nation, it is not going to allow itself to be exploited.

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His views on its relations with the rest of the world neither represent mainstream opinion nor define the importance of Asean to the US.

While the US is seen less interested in playing a role in the world stage, another superpower appears to be cruising through with its policy. China is seen asserting its presence in South China Sea and through the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative.

With a greater Chinese presence in the region, expectations are Beijing will enter into deals with individual Asean countries, putting Asean centrality under siege.

It is therefore paramount that US plays a lead role in the region and break away from its insular stance and embrace greater multilateralism.

The geostrategic reason should be sufficient for the US to play a bigger role in Asean. The 10 countries in the bloc have a combined population of 630 million, which is twice the size of the US population. It is a region that is well-endowed with natural resources, and is the seventh largest economy with a GDP of $2.4 trillion. It is on a trajectory to becoming the fourth largest economy by 2050.

At the heart of Asean is the world’s most important sea lane, the Straits of Malacca, which is the most important international shipping and maritime trade.

With the extended trade war between China and the US, many US multinationals are looking to relocate their supply chain to Asean countries. Many were already thinking of doing so with China’s labour becoming increasingly expensive with tighter environmental regulations.

Asean has fostered a growth of supply chains and many multinationals stay competitive by moving its operations into the region that has enabled greater comparative advantage. Each component of good service is assembled in the best location. This has certainly benefitted multinationals throughout the world such as the US with less expensive goods since it is able to leverage on the skilled labour and rich resource in the region.

In 2016, two-way trade between Asean and the US amounted to $234 billion while US exports to Asean countries expanded 58 percent with top US goods categories comprising electrical machinery, aircraft, optical and medical instruments, and miscellaneous grains and fruits.

Meanwhile, US services exports to Asean totalled $27.1 billion in 2015 (latest data available), up 11.7 percent from 2014. US trade in goods and services with Asean now supports more than 500,000 American jobs.

Asean already serves as an economic partner with China, a bulwark against the incremental Chinese expansion. None of the Asean countries individually carry much heft in geopolitical contests but they collectively represent considerable force. The US badly needs regional powers that counterbalance China’s growing geopolitical footprint. The three most important powers in this respect are India, Japan and Asean.

As the centrality of Asean comes under siege with individual Asean countries negotiating with China, the US could tilt the scales away from China that would help deter the obtrusive behaviours of either superpower.

The US must maintain the momentum of its rebalance towards Asia-Pacific, focussing on three pillars consisting of comprehensive and inclusive security networks, economic integration and connectivity, and soft power and people-to-people ties.

Asean acknowledges the role of the US in maintaining regional peace and stability, and has provided security in Asia-Pacific. It also welcomes US military presence to promote stability but strategic rivalry and competition between US and China have caused security tension in Asean. While Asean countries might be seen tilting towards China for the furtherance of their own economic interests, the US should treat Asean as an independent entity irrespective of the latter’s alliance towards China.

The US must continue to strengthen multilateralism by supporting Asean-led institutions such as the Asean Regional Forum (ARF), Asean Defense Minister Meeting-Plus and East Asia Summit. It should also develop a more concrete action to assist Asean realise Vision 2025, particularly by strengthening the Asean-based regional architecture and promoting rules-based international order.

Sathish Govind, is an ex-analyst in a Malaysian think tank
Contributing Writer, Capital Cambodia

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