Absent in Danang: Urgent Need for A US Trade Policy in Asia

By Ernest Z. Bower, Senior Adviser and Director, CSIS Southeast Asia Program

A political commitment to trade is badly needed in the United States.  That point is underlined as the economic and trade ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) gather in Danang, the largest city in central Vietnam positioned on the white sand beaches of the coast and nestled next to the beautifully preserved ancient city of Hoi An.  The ASEAN Ministers are there meeting with their counterparts from all the other East Asia Summit members –  and future member – Australia, China, India, Japan, Korea, New Zealand and Russia (the prospective member).   Even the EU is represented at a ministerial level at the meeting.  As the proverbial roll call of serious players on economic integration and trade in Asia is called in Danang, one important actor is missing:  The United States – absent.

The gap in US strategy for intensifying its engagement in Southeast Asia is clearly trade.  While the United States is starting to connect the dots diplomatically and on security architecture, our trade professionals, some of the most hard-core, experienced Southeast Asia hands in the Administration, are essentially benched as they wait for political and policy decisions to put the US trade leadership back into the game.  That call is clearly being held hostage by the White House and its focus on U.S. midterm elections in November.  Political will better follow elections quickly – meaning pre-Thanksgiving, ideally during President Obama’s extended November tour of Asia – or US engagement in the region will continue to be incomplete and less than strategic.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s attendance record at key ASEAN meetings is perfect to date.  She hasn’t missed an ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) meeting yet and has earned extra credit for visiting Indonesia and the ASEAN Secretariat very early in her tenure.  Across the Potomac River at the Pentagon, her counterpart Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is also kicking butt and taking names – focused like a laser beam on the development of new security architecture in Asia that will have ASEAN at its core.   Gates will travel to Vietnam in October to participate in the ASEAN Defense Minister Meeting + 8 (ADMM+8) which includes all the countries listed above who are in Danang except Europe.  Secretary Clinton will be in Vietnam too in October – at the East Asia Summit receiving and accepting the invitation for the United States to join that group.

Gates and Clinton recognize the need to be forward deployed.  Last month, while Clinton laid down very serious commitments at the ARF in Hanoi around the South China Sea, Gates travelled to Jakarta, the incoming chair of ASEAN for 2011, to cement the return of US-Indonesia military to military relations after a nearly two decade hiatus during which the US military essentially lost contact with its counterparts in Southeast Asia’s largest country.

Unfortunately, US Trade Representative Ron Kirk and Secretary of State Gary Locke have not been given the nod to engage like their counterparts at State and Defense.   Make no mistake, it is not that they don’t want to be there, but they don’t have the remit to do so because the US is quite frankly unsure of its footing on trade due to domestic politics.  Fixing that situation will take Presidential leadership and a true focus on national security – and a big dollop of courage.

Trade is vital to sustained economic recovery in the United States.  Every CEO worth his or her salt knows this and is trying to figure out how to convey it to the White House and Congress without being politically castigated in the poisonous bipartisan environment that has been created inside the beltway.  The US will not achieve the President’s goal of doubling exports in five years without a trade policy.  It will not reach that goal without getting in the game with Asia on trade, particularly ASEAN whose ten nations and 620 million people are collectively the 4th largest market for American goods and services.  Further, confidence in the United States and its ability to lead and follow through on commitments is based on its economic well-being, and that status is being questioned by friends and competitors alike in Asia.

The US can’t be healthy and vibrant economically without a trade policy.  Yes, moving on trade has been politically unpopular in this country for the last couple decades because it means change.  It is the political equivalent of a doctor telling a patient he has to diet to be healthy.  Hard truth, but necessary.  Once the guidance is given and taken, the patient gets healthy, feels good and thanks the doctor for the advice.

It is too late for the US to be at the table on trade with its ASEAN counterparts in Vietnam.  But a commitment not to miss the ASEAN Economic Minister Meeting again, to explore whether the US can develop a hybrid model for engaging ASEAN on trade that takes into account the wide disparity of economic development within ASEAN while at the same time moving forward with the countries that can and will implement facilitation and trade opening measures, and to shift the paradigm from “too hard” to “let’s innovate” is necessary to have a real US strategy for Asia and ASEAN, promote economic growth and protect national security interests.

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