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
What Happened To
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.
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."
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.
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
Does the U.S. Still
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
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.
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
- 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.
- 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
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
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