US-ASEAN Ties Now Critical

The Khmer Times, 8 May 2017

The first special meeting between Asean and US foreign ministers kicked off in Washington DC on Friday amid mounting security tensions and uncertainty on the Korean peninsula and rising regional anxiety over the US’s commitment to Asia.


The meeting was a positive step in promoting mutual trust between Washington and Asean, and it also contributed to restoring the momentum of the US-Asean ties that have encountered a rather uncertain and rocky path after the US election late last year.


The former US President Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia” or “rebalance to Asia” has brought US-Asean relations to a new height, positively contributing to enhancing regional peace and stability through the creation a sort of a stable dynamic strategic equilibrium in the Asia Pacific region.
This year marks 40th anniversary of dialogue relations between the US and Asean. Over the past 40 years, the US has supported Asean in many ways especially in strengthening economic and social infrastructure.
The US partnership with Asean focuses on five areas, namely supporting economic integration, expanding maritime cooperation, cultivating emerging leaders, empowering women, and addressing transnational challenges.
However, Asean’s expectations of the commitment of the US have been relatively low under the leadership of President Donald Trump who personally does not believe in multilateral institutions including Asean.
Asean member countries are unsettled over the US’s new foreign policy towards Asia that is driven by Mr Trump’s vague foreign policy doctrine of putting “America First” – which is generally characterised by transactional politics, unilateralism, and bilateralism.
Mr Trump’s foreign policy team on Asia is on a steep learning curve given their limited experiences and knowledge of the region. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson himself is undergoing on-the-job-training.
Although the US does not have a clear strategy yet towards Asia, the physical presence and certain level of engagement of the US in Asean-led multilateral forums will help build the strategic credibility and moral legitimacy of the US in the region.
The visit of Vice-President Mike Pence to the Asean Secretariat in Jakarta in April and Mr Trump’s commitment to attend the Fifth US-Asean and East Asia Summits in November are important indications of the US’s commitment to the region.
The US is expected to take more concrete actions, particularly in implementing the Asean-US Strategic Partnership 2016-2020, to reassure its Asean friends that the US is willing to strengthen the Asean-led multilateral mechanisms to maintain regional peace and stability, promote regional integration and community building.
North Korea’s nuclear threat is now the main common security concern that draws the US and Asean closer.   Intensifying collective pressure on the North Korean regime to give up its nuclear ambition peacefully seems to be the most viable diplomatic option at the moment.
The US needs Asean’s support in dealing with North Korea. Some Asean member countries have quite close economic and diplomatic ties with North Korea, which gives economic and political breathing ground to Kim Jong-un’s regime.
At the meeting in Washington, Asean and US foreign ministers discussed and expressed their “grave concern” over the tensions on the Korean peninsula and “strongly urged” the North Korean regime to comply with the resolutions of the United Nations Security Council and international laws.
It is assumed that diplomatic pressures and economic sanctions will work. If North Korea is a rational actor, it will opt for a regime survival that relies on economic development and diplomatic outreach rather than nuclear weapons.
If North Korea does not give up its nuclear weapons peacefully, it will definitely be further isolated. Even China, a closest friend of North Korea, has expressed concerns and exercised pressures on North Korea in its attempt to avert future war in the region.
Any small incident will potentially lead to large-scale war, which is in no one’s interest.  All parties concerned need to exercise utmost restraint.
East Asian countries will suffer the most if the war happens on the Korean peninsula and the whole region will be destabilized.
Asean and the US share a common interest in maintaining peace and security in the South China Sea. At the special meeting in Washington, the foreign ministers underscored peaceful resolution of disputes, respect of international laws, and the expeditious conclusion of a code of conduct in the South China Sea.
Asean generally welcomes the role of the US and other extra-regional powers in maintaining peace and stability in international waters and over the airspace in the South China Sea. However, only the claimants – Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam – can effectively resolve their differences.
The US-Asean partnership under the Trump administration is not as dynamic compared with the Obama administration. Mr Trump’s foreign policy team is studying Asean. Sooner or later the US will recognise the necessary and relevant role of Asean in its Asia strategy – if it has one.

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