Rice Misses the ASEAN Regional Forum: Now What?

Report Asia

Rice Misses the ASEAN Regional Forum: Now What?

August 1, 2005 5 min read
Dana Dillon
Dana Dillon
Policy Analyst

This July, Condoleezza Rice became the first American Secretary of State to send her deputy to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum since it was first held in 1994. Taking their cue from Rice, foreign ministers from Japan, India, and China either skipped the meeting or departed early. The Forum has been valuable almost solely for the networking opportunities that it provides. Given U.S. interests in Southeast Asia, attending future meetings makes sense.

What Happened To ASEAN?

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is the oldest, largest and most important Asian organization. Originally formed to smooth over differences between Southeast Asian countries, it soon became the megaphone through which the countries of Southeast Asia spoke to the world. Although the organization never became a regional alliance, security was always at the top of its agenda. The ASEAN countries were anti-communist during the Cold War, but they practiced nonalignment and aggressively avoided being drawn into the wars in Indochina and becoming pawns to the big powers.


The ASEAN countries, led by Indonesia, preferred instead to focus on "national resiliency," meaning economic development and internal security. By the end of the 1980s, most domestic insurgencies had been neutralized, and the ASEAN countries were experiencing remarkable economic growth, inspiring many observers to venerate the seeming "Asian Miracle."


Emboldened by their success, in the 1990s, the original six members of ASEAN (Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand) expanded the membership and the role of ASEAN. ASEAN invited Burma, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam to join and created the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) to integrate their economies and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) to manage regional security.


Unfortunately, these new measures were not successful. ASEAN failed to set any pre-conditions for new membership other than race and geography. Among the new members, only Vietnam has exceeded expectations and become a valuable asset to the organization. Burma, on the other hand, has dissolved into a security, economic, and political nightmare, dragging ASEAN through crisis after crisis and threatening to make ASEAN an international pariah.


AFTA is equally unsuccessful. ASEAN economies range from Singapore, the second most open economy in the world (according to the Heritage Foundation/Wall Street Journal Index of Economic Freedom), to Burma, whose economy exists largely in the black market, making economic integration problematic at best. Additionally, many countries that signed AFTA strongly resist exposing protected industries to even regional competition. Finally, in 1997, many of the weaknesses in the ASEAN economic model coalesced and Asia experienced a major financial crisis, which for years weakened the political will in ASEAN to comply with AFTA. The result is that ASEAN's economies are not better integrated and China has largely captured foreign investment that used to go to Southeast Asia.


The ASEAN Regional Forum was conceived as a meeting to bring together all contending powers in Southeast Asia, great and small, and get them to discuss their security issues at the diplomatic level. The problem with the concept is that there are now 24 participating countries, many with differing ideas of what security issues should be addressed by ARF. The result is that important issues, which are necessarily contentious, are ignored and official ARF pronouncements are no more than milquetoast compromise statements.


For the United States, the principal advantage of ARF was not the host, but the guests. As a venue for furthering U.S. foreign policy interests in Asia, ARF was a great opportunity for Secretaries of State to meet with their counterparts from China, Japan, India, and even North Korea, all in one event. Convenience is a good reason to attend ARF when other venues are not available, but that is hardly an endorsement of ARF itself. The fact that all other major powers dropped out when Rice did demonstrates that they saw ARF the same way.

Does the U.S. Still Need ASEAN?

The short answer is an adamant yes. The countries of Southeast Asia provide more than good conference facilities. There are 500 million people in Southeast Asian countries, the region lies astride the busiest sea lanes in the world, ASEAN countries are major trading partners with the United States, and their economies provide a host of essential commodities, manufactured goods, and services to the United States.


For American national security, two countries, Thailand and the Philippines, are treaty allies of the United States, and Singapore is an important non-allied defense partner that provides critical facilities, including the only dock in Southeast Asia capable of accommodating an American aircraft carrier.


Looking into the future, the United States must carefully manage its relationship with China, and it would be in America's best interest if ASEAN were politically, economically, and militarily strong enough to deter China's creeping hegemony, thus taking Southeast Asia off the map of Sino-American competition-similar to the role it played in the Cold War.

What to do?

In order to rebuild the relevance of ASEAN and ARF and maintain the credibility of the American alliance system in the region, Congress and the Administration should:


  1. Encourage the Secretary of State to attend ARF periodically. In the past, the conference has served as a useful venue for a range of meetings with Asian policymakers. In order to keep the conference on foreign ministers' diplomatic calendars, the U.S. Secretary of State must attend some of the meetings.
  2. Work with the countries of Southeast Asia to change the membership of ASEAN. Burma is an enormous liability to the organization, and passing over Rangoon for the 2006 Chairmanship does not resolve the problem-it just pushes it down the road. Furthermore, ASEAN should invite Australia to join. Like Burma, Australia is firmly located in Southeast Asia with no plans to move. Unlike Burma, Australia has an open market economy, the rule of law, and a stable government untarnished by brutal repression and universal condemnation.
  3. Promote democracy. In 2004, Indonesia joined Thailand and the Philippines as full democracies, and those countries contain a substantial majority of the ASEAN population. Singapore, Malaysia, and Cambodia already hold elections, and a few procedural changes in their election systems would represent major advances in their political maturity.
  4. Begin negotiating a free trade agreement between the U.S. and ASEAN. This agreement should more deeply integrate the regional economies and advance the U.S. trade agenda in the region.

For better or for worse, Secretary Rice now has the attention of countries in the region. She should use this opportunity to encourage bold steps that could bring meaningful change to ASEAN and advance American interests in the region.


Dana R. Dillon is a Senior Policy Analyst in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.


Dana Dillon
Dana Dillon

Policy Analyst