January 30, 2007

January 30, 2007 | Commentary on Asia

U.S. should support initiatives to build East Asia community

The conversation in East Asia over economic community continued at the ASEAN annual meetings two weeks ago. It is a vitally important discussion, and the United States needs to keep close tabs on it. That doesn't mean, however, that for each new pronouncement regarding it, the United States must post a response.

The discussion regarding economic integration in East Asia is ASEAN-centered. It is complex and involves literally hundreds of meetings a year. Responding to each initiative would exhaust our diplomacy and result in incoherent, ineffective policy. Moreover, such an approach, whatever the substance of our response, allows those making the proposals - our competitors - to control the agenda.

What the United States must have is a set of principles that guides its engagement with ASEAN and forms the basis of a positive policy approach. Among them: 1) An understanding of the strong trend toward regional economic integration; 2) a commitment to economic freedom; 3) support for our regional allies and partners; 4) commitment to personal relationships and an appreciation for the power of regular interaction among principals; and 5) appreciation for the "ASEAN way."

Economic integration is well underway. It is driven by ASEAN because ASEAN finds itself playing catch up in a hyper-competitive area of the world. Its stake in some form of economic community is virtually existential. China, an economy of more than $2 trillion growing at 10 percent a year, sits on its northern doorstep. Another billion-person booming economy, India, is outside its western door. Japan, the world's second largest economy, and South Korea - a country that maintains an economy the size of India's with only 5 percent the population - are each a short flight away.

ASEAN needs economy of scale to compete. It needs to reach out to its neighbors and other trading partners for resources and markets. These imperatives, combined with the economic opportunity ASEAN presents the world, makes integration inevitable. What form it takes is an open question. It is also open to influence.

Economic freedom is essential to development. To the extent that regional agreements promote free trade and open investment regimes, the better for ASEAN. The United States should support its effort to thus unleash its productive forces. It should also seek its own agreements with ASEAN. Our engagement benefits American businesses and workers. It also keeps us engaged in the economic life of the region. That is the clear message of the recently signed U.S.-ASEAN Trade and Investment Framework Arrangement, as well as our FTA with Singapore and negotiations with Malaysia.

Treaty allies and security partners are bedrock relationships. The United States has treaty allies in the Philippines and Thailand, and a very close security relationship with Singapore. These relationships assume pride of place when we look at our security interests in the Southeast Asia. This doesn't mean we won't disagree; Sometimes, as with Thailand, we will disagree on fundamental issues of governance. Neither does it mean that we won't find ways to expand our network of security partners. It simply means that we won't take these relationships for granted.

Personal relationships are East Asia's common currency. This is a cliche in the West for a good reason: It's true. It combines with a concern for protocol and respect for rank that makes the American president's involvement and that of his cabinet secretaries absolutely vital to an effective foreign policy. President Bush's personal interaction with ASEAN leaders during APEC the last two years has been an elemental part of its new policy of engagement with the region. It has changed the tone of a relationship often strained by perceptions of American aloofness. One would hope that this year, the president finds a way to not only suitably mark the 30th anniversary of U.S.-ASEAN relations, but to lay the groundwork for summitry that will outlive his administration.

ASEAN and the processes it has engendered are unique. To American policy makers and opinion leaders, their many meetings often appear pointless. A criticism often heard in Washington is that ASEAN is a "talk shop" - meaning all they do is talk. This, however, is a dangerous misperception. It obscures ASEAN's successes and devalues the processes at the heart of current events in East Asia. ASEAN has kept peace among its members for 40 years. It held fast against communism. Over the last 15 years, it has unleashed a regional trend toward free trade. And it is at the center of what is really the only security framework in the broader East Asia region - the ASEAN Regional Forum.

Building a broader East Asia community is a slow moving, complex, speculative venture. Passing judgment on it now would be premature. What the United States can do is vigorously support the principle that it and similar initiatives remain open and inclusive. Arbitrarily cutting off the benefits of economic freedom with national boundaries is nonsensical in this global age. It disregards the massive economic interests of international partners. And it would effectively cap ASEAN's powerful potential.

Walter Lohman is senior research fellow for Southeast Asia in the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Walter Lohman Director, Asian Studies Center
Asian Studies Center

Related Issues: Asia

First appeared in the Korea Herald