2nd US-ASEAN Leaders Meeting: Elevating the Partnership to a Strategic Level

by Ernest Bower, Center for Strategic and International Studies

Posted at Sep 29 2010 11:26 AM | Updated as of Sep 29 2010 07:26 PM

The tone of the second U.S.-ASEAN Leaders Meeting between 8 of the 10 ASEAN leaders and U.S. president Barack Obama may be one of the most striking characteristics of the event. The mood was sober, serious, and focused. Absent were the hortatory declarations and rhetorical directives of some past meetings, representing frustrated diplomatic initiatives. These were heads of government with a sense of mission.

Despite the fact that there were imperfections in the structure of the meeting, notably the absence of President Susilio Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia, the region’s largest country and incoming chairman of ASEAN, the leaders were particularly cognizant that words used would be examined carefully in the context of renewed tension between the United States and China. The result was a comprehensive Joint Statement whose most important line was, “We welcomed the idea to elevate our partnership to a strategic level and will make this a primary focus area.”

While the media scoured the Waldorf Astoria and rang analysts seeking perspectives that would feed the story line of increased U.S.-China friction they were developing from Manhattan, President Obama and the ASEAN leaders embarked on a focused review of the U.S.-ASEAN relationship and noted areas of deep cooperation that, taken together, suggest a real commitment to reinvigorate U.S. engagement in the region.

Importantly, both the United States and ASEAN rejected the idea that their relationship is defined by China. This point is important because it means the United States wants to reinvigorate its relationship with ASEAN because of the important economic, political, security, and socioeconomic benefits close ties will bring, not because it needs the relationship to manage an emergent China. Clearly, how China defines its role and desires in the region and globally will continue to be a fundamental concern of all parties at the table, but it is a process the partners can review and respond to if necessary from a base of strong mutual interests.

In his opening statement, President Obama made the case to Americans that ASEAN is core to U.S. economic and national security interests, taking an important step down the road to closing the gap between the deep policy engagement with ASEAN described by the Joint Statement and ensuring there is political support for sustaining that focus.

For his part, President Aquino, speaking in his role as the ASEAN convening chair for the ASEAN-U.S. relationship, said the meeting was “testimony to America’s commitment to be an active partner of ASEAN.” He went on to say the motivation for the meeting represented “a common desire to intensify our partnership.” Aquino sharpened the focus on the South China Sea, saying the United States “has been our staunchest partner in security cooperation in the region” and noting that “a growing concern is the competing territorial claims in the South China Sea.” He underlined the mutual U.S. and ASEAN “renewed commitment” to the Declaration on the Code of Conduct (DOC) of Parties in the South China Sea and supported the drafting of a “formal code” for the South China Sea “in which claimants vow to adhere to diplomatic processes to resolve territorial disputes.” He said this focus was consistent with remarks made by U.S. secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton at the ASEAN Regional Forum in Hanoi in July 2010.The Joint Statement described the broad and deep ties between the United States and ASEAN, ranging from trade and economic (marked by the Trade & Investment Framework Agreement or TIFA) to engagement in the ASEAN Regional Forum and Post-Ministerial Conference, the ASEAN Defense Ministers Plus, and the signing of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), to establishing a Permanent U.S. Mission at the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta and naming a new U.S. ambassador for ASEAN to be resident in Jakarta.

The leaders also laid out a framework for enhanced high-level engagement that will be tested by results and substantive follow-through. The statement called for more high-level engagement of U.S. cabinet secretaries with their ASEAN counterparts. This is a serious focus and will be needed to be proven by the actions of U.S. government leaders such as Steve Chu at the Department of Energy and Tom Vilsack at the Department of Agriculture. Will they join their counterparts, Secretary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, in being forward-deployed in ASEAN later this year and beyond? A near-term test of this new level of engagement will be whether U.S. treasury secretary Geithner and Federal Reserve chairman Bernanke meet their ASEAN counterparts during the upcoming World Bank and IMF meetings in Washington, D.C., in October.

President Obama and his ASEAN counterparts have laid out a sound and sober foundation for building the U.S.-ASEAN relationship and taking it to a new level. That effort will entail consistent high-level focus, which in turn will require sustained political support and engagement of the business community, civil society, and thought leaders. The second U.S.-ASEAN Leaders Meeting in New York struck an appropriate tone for a relationship headed in the right direction, but with significant work to do in the months and years ahead.

Ernest Z. Bower is the Senior Adviser & Director for Center for Strategic and International Studies - Southeast Asia Studies.