Home > ADMM+8, ASEAN, East Asia Summit, South China Sea > 2nd US ASEAN LEADERS’ MEETING: Elevating the Partnership to a Strategic Level

2nd US ASEAN LEADERS’ MEETING: Elevating the Partnership to a Strategic Level

September 27, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

By Ernie Z. Bower, Senior Adviser & Director, CSIS Southeast Asia Program

The tone of the meeting between eight of the ten ASEAN leaders and US President Barack Obama may be one of the most striking characteristics of the event.  The mood was sober, serious and focused.   Absent were hortatory declarations and rhetorical directives representing frustrated diplomatic initiatives of some past meetings. These were heads of government with a sense of mission.

Despite the fact that there were imperfections in the structure of the meeting, notably the absence of President Susilio Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia, the region’s largest country and incoming chairman of ASEAN, the leaders were particularly cognizant that words used would be examined carefully in the context of renewed tension between the US and China.  The result was a comprehensive Joint Statement whose most important line was that, “We welcomed the idea to elevate our partnership to a strategic level and will make this a primary focus area.”

While the media scoured the Waldorf Astoria and rang analysts seeking perspectives that would feed a story-line of increased US-China friction they were developing from Manhattan, President Obama and the ASEAN leaders embarked on a focused review of the US ASEAN relationship and noted areas of deep cooperation which taken together suggest a real commitment to reinvigorate US engagement in the region.

Importantly, both the US and ASEAN rejected the idea that their relationship is defined by China. This point is important because it means the US wants to reinvigorate its relationship with ASEAN because of the important economic, political, security and socio-economic benefits close ties will bring, not because it needs the relationship to manage an emergent China.  Clearly, how China defines its role and desires in the region and globally will continue to be a fundamental concern of all parties at the table, but it is a process the partners can review and respond to if necessary from a base of strong mutual interests.

In his Opening Statement, President Barack Obama made the case to Americans that ASEAN is core to US economic and national security interests, taking an important step down the road to closing the gap between the deep policy engagement with ASEAN described by the Joint Statement and ensuring there is political support for sustaining that focus.

For his part, President Aquino, speaking in his role as the ASEAN convening chair for the ASEAN – US relationship said the meeting was “testimony to America’s commitment to be an active partner of ASEAN.”  He went on to say the motivation for the meeting represented “a common desire to intensify our partnership”.  Aquino sharpened the focus on the South China Sea saying the US “has been our staunchest partner in security cooperation in the region,” and noting that “a growing concern is the competing territorial claims in the South China Sea.”  He underlined the mutual US and ASEAN “renewed commitment” to the Declaration on the Code of Conduct (DOC) of Parties in the South China Sea and supported the drafting of a “formal code” for the South China Sea “in which claimants vow to adhere to diplomatic processes to resolve territorial disputes.”  He said this focus was consistent with remarks made by US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at the ASEAN Regional Forum in Hanoi in July, 2010.

The Joint Statement described the broad and deep ties between the US and ASEAN ranging from trade and economic (marked by the Trade & Investment Framework Agreement or TIFA) to engagement in the ASEAN Regional Forum and Post Ministerial Conference, the ASEAN Defense Ministers Plus, signing the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) to establishing a Permanent US Mission at the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta and naming a new US Ambassador for ASEAN to be resident in Jakarta.

The leaders also laid out a framework for enhanced high level engagement that will be tested by results and substantive follow through.  The Statement called for more high level engagement of US Cabinet Secretaries with their ASEAN counterparts.  This is a serious focus and will be need to be proven by the actions of US Government leaders such as Steve Chu at the Department of Energy and Tom Vilsack at the Department of Agriculture.  Will they join their counterparts Secretaries Clinton and Gates in being forward deployed in ASEAN later this year and beyond?  A near term test of this new level of engagement will be whether US Treasury Secretary Geithner and Federal Reserve Chairman Bernanke meet their ASEAN counterparts during the upcoming World Bank and IMF meetings in Washington, D.C. in October.

President Obama and his ASEAN counterparts have laid out a sound and sober foundation for building the US ASEAN relationship and taking it to a new level.  That effort will entail consistent high level focus which in turn will require sustained political support, engagement of the business community, civil society and thought leaders.  The 2nd US ASEAN Leaders meeting in New York struck an appropriate tone for a relationship headed in the right direction, but with significant work to do in the months and years ahead.

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