America pivots toward ASEAN

Donald K Emmerson
Asia Times Online,

Kampial, Indonesia – To the sounds of a gamelan orchestra, white-dressed Balinese pay ritual homage to Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of knowledge and learning. The timing is apt as over a thousand journalists and others try to divine the significance of a week of high-level diplomacy held on the island, including the 6th East Asia Summit (EAS), the 19th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit, and other ASEAN-linked events.

Declinism is in vogue in the United States, to the point that the normally sober Foreign Affairs asks, tongue in cheek, “Is America Over?” on the cover of its current issue. As a number of Asian speakers have noted this week in Bali, their region is now the brightest spot in a darkening world economy. One might expect these Asians to think that the West is toast — to relish their own risen profile rise with feelings of pride tinged with Schadenfreude. The theme of this week’s summitry — “ASEAN Community in a Global Community of Nations” — purposely evokes the wider role to which Southeast Asian leaders now aspire.

At a conference last week in Kuala Lumpur, a Malaysian friend predicted Chinese supremacy in Asia. A few days later, a Singaporean colleague warned me that the United States, dangerously in debt, could ruin itself and the world by sheer selfishness and incompetence. Neither of these informants felt satisfaction in the face of American decline, however, and their opinions did not reflect the prevailing views at the summits in Bali.

Southeast Asians here have not written off the United States. But they have, to a modest extent, written it down — and they could, in future, depending on events, write it back up. Indeed that upward tick may already have begun here in Bali with the first-ever presence of an American president, Barack Obama, at the EAS.

The basis for this contingent and variable view of the United States, on the downside and the upside alike, is partly of Washington’s own making. In shifting away from its predecessor’s reputation for unilateralism toward working more readily with other countries in multilateral settings, the Obama administration has necessarily reduced its own relative stature abroad. In a crowd, one stands out less.

At the same time, however, in pivoting away from potentially failing experiments beyond the Atlantic — the euro, Iraq, Afghanistan — and toward the increasingly Asian drivers of the world economy, Obama’s foreign-policy team has begun to reverse the erosion of American standing here. Pivoting does not mean turning completely around, of course. Trans-Atlantic concerns and winding down wars, not to mention domestic economic and political turmoil, are still on Washington’s screen. Nor is a pivot a full-scale embrace: US differences with ASEAN remain. A case in point, it would seem, is the group’s recent decision to allow Myanmar to chair ASEAN in 2014.


Yes you may, Myanmar

The Myanmar junta’s repressive ways long made it a pariah in American (and European) eyes. But ASEAN’s customary alphabetic rotation pegged the regime to lead the organization in 2006. Washington more or less threatened to boycott meetings of the group if the junta chaired them, at least the ones held inside Myanmar. In mid-2005, under pressure from other ASEAN states, the ruling generals “volunteered” to postpone their country’s turn. ASEAN accepted the junta’s offer to stand aside, and Myanmar was removed from the queue on the understanding that it could rejoin the rotation later on, implicitly contingent on evidence of reform.

The evidence arrived. Myanmar’s constrained elections in November 2010 were followed by further loosening of the generals’ grip. Naypyidaw asked ASEAN for permission to get back in line to assume the chair for 2014. American policymakers and politicians were troubled by this prospect, not to mention activists for civil and human rights. ASEAN could have postponed replying to Myanmar’s request, after all. There was no overriding need to decide the 2014 rotation in November 2011, more than two years in advance. A wait-and-see attitude would have maintained pressure on Naypyidaw — no ongoing reform, no chair.

On November 17, at their summit here in Bali, ASEAN leaders chose otherwise. Myanmar would be allowed to take the chair for 2014. Reportedly, only two ASEAN members had significant doubts about the wisdom of acceding to Naypyidaw’s request. The Philippines wanted ASEAN to retain leverage in the interest of democracy and civil rights, while Singapore feared that Naypyidaw’s chairmanship could prove to be a damaging distraction.

Singapore appears to have worried that, between now and then, the Myanmar regime might reverse course and crack down. Were that to occur, the ensuing political controversy could distract the ASEAN states when they should be focused on erecting an ASEAN Economic Community in time for its inauguration in 2015.

Singapore’s technocracy also likely doubted Myanmar’s competence to lead anyone, let alone a grouping of ten diverse and sometimes contentious states. That skepticism was visible between the lines of the quasi-official Straits Times’ description of Myanmar as “beset by grinding poverty and economic dysfunction,” burdened with primitive banking and judicial systems, and challenged by ethnic insurgents and criminals trafficking in “vast quantities of heroin and methamphetamines sold across Asia.”

Whoever wins the 2012 American presidential election will have to decide whether to attend ASEAN meetings chaired by Myanmar in 2014. The conservative Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, has already advised against doing so. Provided Myanmar continues to reform, however, the narrow difference between ASEAN’s green light and Washington’s preference for an amber one need not disrupt US-ASEAN relations.

Meanwhile the Obama administration has begun to pivot in ASEAN’s direction on Myanmar as well. Hillary Clinton will visit the country on December 1-2, the first such trip by an American secretary of state in some 50 years. That said, however, traveling to Myanmar and agreeing to be led by it are two different things. ASEAN’s decision this week in Bali to welcome Myanmar as its future chair on the day before it welcomed Obama to the EAS is a useful reminder that the diminishing diplomatic distance between the United States and ASEAN is no guarantee that they will ultimately converge, or stay, on the same page.

Indeed, there is no assurance that the distance will continue to diminish. In the packed schedule and celebratory mood that pervaded the summitry in Bali, there was little time or inclination to ponder the potentially controversial implications of the English alphabet as it has been tweaked to determine the upcoming sequence of ASEAN chairs. In that rotational context, at least two concerns could impact American cooperation with Southeast Asia: democratic values and strategic alignment.


North-South divide

The US-based Freedom House annually classifies countries as “Free,” “Partly Free,” or “Not Free.” By its estimation, Indonesia, the outgoing (2011) chair of ASEAN, is the only “Free” state in Southeast Asia. Every one of the next four heads of ASEAN is presently “Not Free,” namely, Cambodia, Brunei, Myanmar, and Laos — in that order from now through 2015. (In addition, it will be Vietnam’s turn to contribute a secretary-general to administer ASEAN beginning on January 1, 2013.) If the American pivot remains in place and reforms in Myanmar stall or are reversed, Washington would be well advised to prepare for a series of more or less authoritarian leaders as its leading partners in Southeast Asia in the years ahead.

Related to democratic values is strategic alignment. For decades analysts have distinguished inside Southeast Asia two tiers of states: a continental set in the north and a maritime one in the south. Geographically, of course, the northern subgroup is closer to China (and less democratic) than is the southern one.

Proximity need not engender deference. The most obvious instance of that truth is Vietnam, whose location adjacent to China has had, if anything, the opposite effect. Vietnam’s distrust of its huge northern neighbor, historically based in experiences of ancient domination and modern incursion, is currently reflected in and reinforced by tensions between Hanoi and Beijing over the South China Sea. Vietnam aside, however, the other northern-tier states — Cambodia, Myanmar, and Laos — are more plausible candidates for eventual absorption into a China-centered sphere than are their fellow ASEAN members farther south.

On the last day of this week of summitry in Bali, two things were said that the media overlooked but were likely important for the future of America’s ASEAN pivot. First, upon receiving the symbolic gavel to begin Cambodia’s year as ASEAN’s chair starting on January 1, 2012, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced his government’s priorities for the group. The one he stressed most was “connectivity,” which is ASEAN-speak for forging linkages of infrastructure and communications. The complex and changing maps of such connections — existing, underway, and proposed — include grids and vectors of traffic in people, goods, and ideas running east-west and north-south across the region.

Connectivity has two faces: internal and external. Building and bettering infrastructural links can speed the internal integration of Southeast Asia — a key condition for the success of the Economic Community that ASEAN hopes to inaugurate in 2015. But connectivity can also enhance the ability of outside states to penetrate Southeast Asia — trading, investing, and thereby enhancing their relative clout in the region.

In principle, connectivity can involve and benefit any of ASEAN’s neighbors. But no non-regional state has a longer land border with Southeast Asia than China. Beijing’s support for north-south connections across that lengthy boundary makes sense in this larger, political context. In championing connectivity, one could argue, ASEAN’s incoming Cambodian chair is facilitating the enlargement of Chinese influence over the region — or at least over its northern tier. Phnom Penh already has acquired something of a reputation inside ASEAN for being its most “pro-Beijing” member.

The second bit of unreported news occurred when Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was asked at a press conference what could be done to sustain the momentum that ASEAN had acquired under his country’s leadership. Yudhoyono remarked in reply that although Indonesia was no longer in the chair, it would serve in 2012 on an ASEAN troika made up of the 2011 (Indonesian), 2012 (Cambodian), and 2013 (Bruneian) chairs. Although of course he did not openly say so, one could infer from his comment that Yudhoyono was not wholly sanguine as to the direction in which Hun Sen might try to take ASEAN in 2012.

This is not to predict that the American pivot toward ASEAN will be rebuffed in the coming Cambodian year. But US-ASEAN relations could get more not less interesting between now and the moment in 2015 when the small, dirt-poor, neo-Leninist, one-party state of Laos is slated to host what ASEANists are hoping will be an impressively grand occasion: the epochal birth of an ASEAN Community. The island of Bali is a long way from landlocked Laos. But in view of the successful diplomacy this past week in Indonesia, and for the sake of balance in ASEAN’s image and role in the larger world, one can hope that the wisdom of the Hindu goddess Saraswati will inspire the group’s northern leaders as well.

Donald K Emmerson heads the Southeast Asia Forum at Stanford University ( His writings include Asian Regionalism and US Policy: The Case for Creative Adaptation (2010).

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