Vikram Nehru on the U.S.-ASEAN Summit

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry greets ASEAN Foreign Ministers before the start of the U.S.-ASEAN meeting on the sidelines of the 70th Regular Session of the U.N .General Assembly in New York Sept. 30, 2015.

Dr. Vikram Nehru is a senior associate in the Carnegie Asia program in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His research focuses on the economic, political and strategic issues confronting Asia, particularly Southeast Asia. He has previously served in the World Bank in many senior management positions, the most recent being the chief economist and director for poverty reduction, economic management and private and financial sector development for East Asia and the Pacific. During the last Myanmar election, he was monitoring the election on the ground in Myanmar. He was interviewed by Christina Yoh '18 on March 4, 2016.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has expanded since 1967 to now include ten Southeast Asian countries. Which actors are the most critical at this time? How have the importance and role of the various state actors in the association shifted over time?

The most important nations of ASEAN are and always have been the original five—Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines, and Malaysia—because they are the largest economies and have the most influence in the region. Among them, Indonesia is probably the most influential, simply because of its size. Having said that, one could argue that those countries that became members later —Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar—have been the "tails that wag the ASEAN dog." ASEAN is a regional organization based on principles of non-interference and consensus, so no decisions are made without everyone's agreement. The implication is that any member country carries a potential veto in every ASEAN decision. It follows that every ASEAN member country is potentially influential. In the past, however, Indonesia has been particularly active in proposing new initiatives, some of which have changed the direction the association has taken, and has been influential in finding peaceful solutions when differences have arisen between different ASEAN countries. Indonesia has also been a leader in other contexts. For example, it encouraged ASEAN to spearhead efforts of the international community in providing relief to Myanmar after Hurricane Nargis, which helped build trust between Myanmar and its neighbors and the west.

What was the greatest achievement at the latest summit in Sunnylands, California?

There were no decisions to be made in the recent Sunnylands summit. The statement issued after the summit essentially reiterated ASEAN's previously held positions on such issues as maritime security, trade integration, connectivity, SME (small and medium enterprise) development, and the region’s relations with the United States. There was nothing in the statement that came as a surprise.

But Sunnylands was nevertheless important. It was the first ever summit with the United States that was held on the U.S. mainland, and it was held at the same location where President Obama met President Xi Jinping in 2013. Sometimes in diplomacy, symbolism is substance. In this particular case, the fact that President Obama hosted the ASEAN countries at the same place as China sent the clear message that United States foreign policy attached the same importance to ASEAN as it did China. This boosted ASEAN’s stature in Asia and the world, and it was as much a reflection of America’s rebalancing strategy toward Asia as it was recognition of ASEAN's importance as a partner in the broader objective of establishing a rules-based security and economic order in Asia.

Currently, more and more foreign countries, including the U.S., Japan, South Korea and China are showing an interest in participating in and hosting ASEAN summits. Why is this so? What interests can non-members pursue through ASEAN’s summits?

All of the countries that you mention are members of the East Asia Summit (EAS), which includes ASEAN plus eight other Asia-Pacific countries -- China, Japan, Korea, Australia, New Zealand, India, Russia and the United States. These countries are engaging ASEAN for several reasons. First of all, ASEAN is the only regional organization in Asia that convenes multilateral meetings on the entire range of issues that are relevant to the Asia-Pacific. These include security (both maritime security and non-traditional security), economic integration, disaster relief management, and tensions in the South China Sea. These issues are not only discussed within ASEAN but also in other ASEAN-related institutions such as the ASEAN Defense Minister's Meeting-Plus (ADMM+), the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), and the East Asian Summit (EAS). These organizations play an important role in convening countries to meet and exchange views regularly. They have become essential channels of communication between member governments. In some cases, they have gone beyond communication and resulted in cooperative endeavors such as disaster relief management and anti-piracy actions which have been useful in developing trust and establishing cooperative approaches to common challenges. There are other areas of common interest which non-members have promoted through ASEAN such as improvements in trade facilitation, establishments of single-window systems, and even military medicine. These activities not only demonstrate that there are potentially several interesting areas where ASEAN can foster cooperation, but that ASEAN is really the only regional organization in the Asia-Pacific that is able to accomplish so much and over such a wide spectrum.

What was at stake for the United States at the most recent ASEAN summit held in Southern California? And why did the involvement of the U.S. matter so much?

The U.S. has always played an important role in Southeast Asia, but its influence has been magnified ever since it became a part of the EAS. The reality is that since the Second World War, the U.S. has been the guarantor for security in Asia and this allowed the region to pursue economic development without diverting significant resources for military expenditures. The U.S. has also been a significant economic presence and is the largest foreign investor in the region. Indeed, the so-called U.S. "pivot toward Asia" may be a misnomer as the U.S. has always maintained a significant presence in the region, although this may not always have been reflected in America’s foreign policy priorities. ASEAN has consistently stated that it very much welcomes the refocusing of U.S. foreign policy toward Asia, and because Asia is the most dynamic region in the world and is growing most rapidly, the U.S. recognizes that a stable, secure, and peaceful Asia is in the long-term strategic interests of the U.S. and, indeed, the world.

The importance of the United States as an economic power in Asia, and more importantly as the principal provider of security in the region, has been heightened ever since the rise of China. ASEAN’s interest in ensuring a U.S. presence in the region has increased dramatically over the last 10 years or so -- a period that has seen China become more assertive in the South China Sea and more aggressive in its relations with its neighbors. Make no mistake, China’s economic rise has been welcomed by ASEAN which has benefited enormously in its wake. ASEAN’s rapid integration with the Chinese economy has boosted ASEAN growth and the production value chains that have developed between ASEAN and China have been the driver of much of the region’s economic dynamism. At the same time, however, ASEAN and other Asian nations have become increasingly concerned with the security dimensions associated with China's economic rise, which has been accompanied by increased assertiveness and its rapidly growing military presence and capabilities. So the U.S. commitment toward Asia serves the long-term strategic interests of ASEAN as well as the U.S., and this is what gives strength and durability to the relationship.

You mentioned that non-members of ASEAN perceive ASEAN as important in terms of regional security and economic issues. How do they perceive ASEAN as a collaborative actor in the region? Does the perception match the actual leverage of ASEAN in geopolitical matters?

ASEAN is an association of ten countries that vary considerably in size and which have very different levels of economic development, different political systems, and different strategic interests. The only common characteristic they share is their location which happens to be in a very strategic part of the world -- ASEAN straddles the Malacca Strait through which a very large part of global shipping and global energy supplies pass. ASEAN’s diversity is the reason why the grouping is based on principles of non-interference and consensus-based decision making; anything stricter would actually not be sustainable for an organization with such diversity in its membership. ASEAN’s durability (it will be 50 years old next year) has been based on the fact that its members feel secure in the knowledge that such a loose arrangement ensures no loss of sovereignty and allows them to pursue their national interests while at the same time enables them to cooperate on issues of common interest. ASEAN’s consensus-based approach to decision making, however, has meant that it has found it difficult to develop a unified stance on important regional or global questions. That should hardly be surprising because regional and global forces have widely differing effects on individual ASEAN member states, in large part because they are so diverse. But at the same time, ASEAN members and the international community, including the United States, recognize that a weak ASEAN that can reach consensus on only a few issues is still better than no ASEAN at all -- because the existence of ASEAN as a regional institution facilitates the search for common interests and permits the airing of differences. Obviously, a strong, unified ASEAN would be better than an ASEAN seemingly at odds with itself, but building a strong ASEAN will require patience and persistence in order to bridge the diverse interests of its individual members.

It is true that ASEAN's partners have expressed a certain amount of disappointment in its inability to present a unified stance on important regional questions and are impatient with the vague and seemingly platitudinous statements it issues. But that’s because they have high expectations of ASEAN – perhaps higher expectations than ASEAN member countries themselves. Instead, ASEAN’s international partners should see ASEAN as a regional institution that allows the discussion of common concerns and provides the opportunity to broaden areas of dialogue and cooperation while also searching for common solutions to the region’s many challenges. I believe that as the members of ASEAN gradually converge in terms of per capita income and levels of development, their long-term strategic interests will gradually coalesce too. Similarly, my hope is that over time ASEAN will also see a convergence of political systems toward greater democracy and respect for human rights and this would enable the establishment of a more common platform on such important issues as the investigation of human rights abuses, access to justice, the transparency and standards of electoral systems, and the accountability of political leaders. So if I am right that development standards and political systems are likely to converge gradually among these ten countries, it should facilitate the emergence of a unified approach to internal challenge and a more common position on international issues than occurs today.

The only trouble with this analysis is that convergence within ASEAN along these political and economic lines is progressing very slowly. Yet the challenges confronting ASEAN are growing and changing much more rapidly. This is especially true with respect to the rise of China. Therefore, well-wishers of ASEAN like me harbor a deep concern that unless the regional organization does something radically different very soon to increase its unity and effectiveness, it may not be able to deal with these rapidly changing international developments. Rather than developing the capacity to shape regional and global developments, ASEAN will end up being shaped by them.

The U.S.-ASEAN joint statement released after the summit was largely criticized for not specifically mentioning China and its aggressive activity in the South China Sea. Given four of the ten members have claims within the South China Sea dispute, what role can ASEAN play? What can ASEAN collectively do to reduce tensions in the South China Sea?

ASEAN has found it difficult to reduce tensions in the South China Sea for two reasons. The first reason is that the key player in the South China Sea is China, and not even the U.S. – let alone ASEAN -- has much leverage over China. The second reason is that ASEAN member countries have different relations with China based on their location and economic ties which comes in the way of arriving at a unified position on how to respond to Chinese actions in the South China Sea. Indeed, as you say, six of ASEAN’s member states have no territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea, so for them, confronting China over the South China Sea yields little strategic value but involves a high risk of disrupting relations. In fact, all ASEAN member states recognize they need to maintain good relations with China because their countries are so deeply integrated with the Chinese economy, and good relations with China are necessary for their own prosperity. To some degree, all of them are joined at the hip with China through trade, financial, and investment linkages, and as we know all too well, foreign policy is usually an instrument of economic policy. At the same time, ASEAN member countries want to make sure they maintain good relations with the United States so that they can benefit from the security umbrella it provides on the off chance that China actually threatens their territorial integrity. While a hedging strategy that requires being equidistant between both powers -- because getting too close to one can antagonize the other -- may make eminent sense for ASEAN member countries, it can be a source of considerable frustration for the U.S.

On the South China Sea specifically, ASEAN has tried to push ahead with finalization of the Code of Conduct. China initially refused to deal with ASEAN as a group because it wanted to only deal bilaterally with the individual countries that had competing territorial claims. China has since relented and has agreed to deal with ASEAN as a group, but frankly, it has shown little interest in moving forward toward an agreement on a code of conduct. China has insisted that signatories of the Declaration of the Code of Conduct should first fully ensure its implementation. This has been a convenient way to postpone discussions on the code of conduct, especially since China has continued to consolidate its claims on islands, islets, shoals and reefs in the South China Sea and neither ASEAN nor the U.S. has been able to stop this from happening.

Almost immediately after the summit, it was revealed that China set up missile defense systems on Woody Island in the disputed South China Sea. In an interview with Channel News Asia, you mentioned that there is not much the U.S. or other Asian countries can do to curtail Chinese actions in the region; and it is becoming more and more difficult to challenge China, especially with increased militarization. How does this missile revelation undermine or discredit the recent US-ASEAN joint statement? How should members of the ASEAN and the U.S. go about addressing the issue of freedom of navigation and sovereignty in the South China Sea with these new developments?

The news that China had installed missile launchers on Woody Island didn't discredit the U.S.-ASEAN Sunnylands Summit. On the contrary, it underscored the importance of the summit. As I said in the interview, one of President Obama's objectives at the Sunnylands summit was to urge the ASEAN countries to work together amongst themselves and with the United States on maritime security issues in the Pacific which included a discussion of China’s actions in the South China Sea. China's placement of missiles on Woody Island did a far better job of getting the ASEAN countries to recognize the seriousness of the situation than anything President Obama could have said. All ASEAN countries recognize the challenge posed by China in the South China Sea but are unwilling to point fingers at China. That is why not only wasn’t China mentioned in the Sunnylands statement, but neither was the South China Sea. The statement mentions commitment to peaceful resolution of disputes and adherence to a rules-based regional and international order. Although the statement was crafted in diplomatic-speak so as not to antagonize China, its underlying meaning and intention was crystal clear to all those who read it including, I am sure, to the Chinese.

Turning to economic issues, ASEAN has made significant progress in deepening economic interdependence and promoting free trade among its members. In terms of external trade pacts, only four ASEAN countries have signed onto the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), however. At the recent summit, the U.S. attempted to persuade the six remaining ASEAN members to sign on to the TPP. To what extent would the TPP – if passed – further develop the economic community of ASEAN?

It is true that besides the four ASEAN members who are already members of the TPP, others have expressed an interest in joining: notably Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand. I am sure that as the TPP is ratified and implemented over time, more and more countries in ASEAN would be interested in joining the TPP.

But my point has always been that trade agreements are not the only factor in determining trade flows. Other factors that determine trade flows are geography, economic size, economic structures, and of course, national trade and investment policies. The reality is that even with the TPP in existence, non-TPP members will continue to experience rapid growth in trade. In fact, I don’t believe the TPP will have as big an impact on patterns of trade as many analysts and commentators would have us believe. Having said that, there is another regional trade agreement in the making – the proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) promoted by ASEAN and including Australia, New Zealand, India, China, Japan, and Korea. While progress on the RCEP has been limited so far, the successful completion of the TPP negotiations will now add urgency to the RCEP negotiations. I believe that RCEP’s participating members will negotiate an agreement within a couple of years at the most and its implementation will support ASEAN's trade relations as a region. If the RCEP does come into existence, it will in fact, be a very large trading arrangement in terms of GDP—large enough to rival the TPP. It is quite possible that several ASEAN countries could be in both the TPP as well as RCEP, and this would pave the way for eventually developing a Free Trade Arrangement for Asia and the Pacific (FTAAP). The FTAAP, which is of course many years away if it is ever formed, would include all the countries of RCEP as well as the U.S.— at least that’s the hope and dream of those who believe that international trade is an important driver of growth. But of course, much will depend on whether the suspicions between the United States and China are dealt with successfully (including by reducing tensions in the South China Sea).

Considering that China is the largest trading partner for these countries, would the TPP offer significant benefits for these members ASEAN? If so, what are some reasons that the six remaining countries are reluctant to sign on to the TPP?

Countries are going to sign on to the TPP or the RCEP based on their national interest. There's no reason why they cannot sign onto both. You're right in pointing out that China is the largest trading partner for all ASEAN member countries, and the reason for that is China’s economic size, proximity and the pattern of trade. The fastest growing component of ASEAN’s trade with China is intra-industry trade which reflects the rapid development of East Asia’s production value chains that underpin the growing competitiveness of the region as a whole. It is important to recognize that these are very powerful market forces at work and are likely to be sustained for years, if not decades, to come. Neither the TPP, nor any other new trading arrangement, will necessarily weaken the forces of economic integration within East Asia or the continued growth of value chains. If the TPP does have an impact, it will only be at the margin, because the market forces supporting East Asian integration are powered by global and regional megatrends and will be reinforced through cross-border infrastructure development, services trade liberalization, and open trade and investment policies at the national level. So while ASEAN members signing on to the TPP can enjoy its benefits, they should also expect to continue to trade more intensely with China as well. Both are very possible. That’s the beauty of economics. It's not a zero sum game.

Christina Yoh CMC '18Student Journalist
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