The Heritage Foundation

Executive Memorandum #746 on Asia

May 10, 2001

May 10, 2001 | Executive Memorandum on Asia

Priorities for Southeast Asian Policy

From security challenges posed by China to maritime piracy and international trade, Southeast Asia plays an increasingly prominent role in U.S. foreign policy decisionmaking. Today, after eight years of misplaced Clinton Administration policy accompanied by a precipitous economic decline in a number of Southeast Asian states, regional security is threatened by the overall erosion of political stability and ongoing maritime border disputes in the South China Sea. A new U.S. policy toward the region is needed. President Bush should craft a policy that focuses on strengthening the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), protecting freedom of navigation, and fostering further economic development.

ASEAN's Role
During the Cold War, ASEAN had a pivotal role in protecting this region--an important trade route--from confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. Member states developed rapidly, both economically and politically, and ASEAN became Asia's most important regional organization and an asset to U.S. interests.

Since the end of the Cold War, however, ASEAN has drifted toward impotence. Its rapid expansion from six market-oriented countries to 10 members--including pariah socialist nations like Burma and Laos--diluted internal cohesion, and the reluctance of the United States, Japan, and the European Union to share a table with such regimes has weakened ASEAN's utility as a multilateral forum. China, viewing a strong ASEAN as an obstacle to its ambitions, works to dominate and neutralize it, preferring bilateral negotiations in which it enjoys a clear advantage because of its size and using meetings like the ASEAN Regional Forum to veto issues it opposes. If America and China enter a period of increased competition, the South China Sea could become a focus of tension. A strong, independent, and prosperous ASEAN is therefore important for U.S. national security interests.

Territorial Disputes
Beijing defines its maritime border to encompass the entire South China Sea, extending hundreds of miles beyond its internationally recognized sovereign territory and exclusive economic zone (EEZ) to the coasts of the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia, and down Vietnam's eastern coast. This expansive interpretation violates the letter and spirit of the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, of which China is a signatory. Moreover, China's penchant for using unilateral force to resolve border disputes in its favor has militarized the issue. Consequently, the ASEAN claimant countries have garrisoned virtually every rock and reef in the South China Sea against further Chinese encroachment.

The Clinton Administration remained neutral toward China's territorial transgressions in Southeast Asia, even failing to criticize China's most aggressive actions. But such actions should not be ignored; they are an explicit threat to freedom of navigation, corrosive to the integrity of international law, and inimical to regional peace. Failure to resolve Southeast Asia's maritime boundary disputes will hinder the development of seabed resources, the regulation of fishing, and the control of maritime piracy. Resolution of these disputes is in America's best interests, but if China remains an obstacle, the United States must make clear that it will strongly oppose any further unilateral military moves.

Weak Economies
Southeast Asia has not yet fully recovered from the 1997 financial crisis. Indonesia, the largest ASEAN state, has done little to reform its economy, and reform efforts in other Asian countries have slowed. Because of this political turmoil and resistance to reform, International Monetary Fund and World Bank prescriptions will have limited impact. On the bright side, Singapore has initiated a new round of free trade agreements with other countries around the world, and its efforts should serve as a model for U.S.-backed efforts to revitalize Southeast Asia. Though repeated demands for reform by international financial institutions have had little effect on the politically beleaguered Asian governments, the demonstrated successes of countries like Singapore, which have willingly reduced their trade barriers, should forge a trail for slower developing countries to follow.

U.S. Support
The United States can best enhance the role ASEAN plays in the development and security of Southeast Asia by:

  • Actively supporting ASEAN's independent status. To balance the pressure China exerts on the ASEAN states, the United States should participate in all ASEAN-sponsored meetings on economic, political, and military issues, including those attended by pariah states. U.S. attendance at military seminars and functions at which Burmese or Indonesian officers are present, far from representing any condoning of their behavior, would demonstrate to America's friends and allies that Southeast Asia is important to the United States.

  • Making it clear that attempting to settle maritime disputes by force threatens regional stability. Even if the United States takes no position on the merits of individual claims in the South China Sea, it should make it clear that disputes should be settled peacefully and that it will not tolerate any disruption of the freedom of navigation. Washington should also support the building of military coalitions within ASEAN to resist Chinese encroachment.

  • Reactivating a multilateral process to resolve maritime disputes. In the past, Indonesia initiated a process to resolve maritime border disputes that Washington all but ignored. The United States should make it known that, with or without China's approval, it will support a consensus ASEAN resolution to resolve maritime disputes. Until such a proposal is ready, Washington should insist that the issue of South China Sea border disputes be added to the agenda of the next ASEAN Regional Forum meeting in July.

  • Expanding regional trade. The United States is negotiating a free trade agreement with Singapore that, along with its bilateral trade agreement with Vietnam, will encourage regional economic liberalization. Washington should expand the free trade umbrella in Southeast Asia to include Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, the Philippines, and other countries willing to take concrete steps to eliminate trade restrictions.

A politically stable, territorially secure, and prosperous Southeast Asia critical to U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific region can best be achieved through U.S. involvement in an effective ASEAN.

Dana Robert Dillon is a Policy Analyst on Southeast Asia in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.

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