Guest Column

12 Asean Briefing Notes for President-Elect Biden

By Kavi Chongkittavorn 24 November 2020

  1. First and foremost, Asean is one fewer problem for the US globally because it is peaceful and prosperous. Supporting Asean means strengthening both US cooperation and its profile in Southeast Asia. Former Asean secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan often told his American counterparts, including former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton when she first visited the Asean Secretariat in April 2012, that Asean is a big asset for the US.


  1. Asean means more jobs for American workers. By 2050, Asean is projected to be the world’s fourth-largest economy. Indeed, the 10-member group is the sixth-largest importer of US agricultural goods. All 50 US states export to Asean, supporting 500,000 jobs in the US. Furthermore, Asean is the number one destination for US investment and cumulatively receives nearly US$274 billion (360 trillion kyats), more than its combined investment in China, India, Japan and South Korea. In 2015, over 780,000 Asean citizens visited the US, adding $5 billion (6.5 trillion kyats) to the economy in addition to the $1.7 billion (2.2 trillion kyats) Asean students contribute (From “Asean Matters for America”, by the East-West Center, Washington DC, 2017).


  1. Asean is as dissimilar to the European Union as an apple to an orange. It is not a military alliance. The bloc is promoting cooperation in all areas, especially now with respect to economic recovery from the impacts of the pandemic. Each member retains its sovereignty and has its own mind. However, when push comes to shove, Asean’s centrality will prevail. From time to time, its members openly disagree but in the end, they always reach a consensus — sometimes with the lowest-common denominator. As such, in the years ahead Asean will be a bridge-builder for the emerging regional architecture in incremental but sure ways.


  1. Attendance at Asean-related summits is a must. As an experienced foreign policymaker, both as a former vice president and chairman of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, President-Elect Joe Biden must understand the value of personal participation. It is, therefore, vital that he attends all Asean-related summits in the next four years. Barack Obama set a record for US presidents by meeting with the Asean leaders 11 times and attending the Asean-related summits in various Asean capitals seven times. Chinese leaders have never missed any Asean-related summits. In this region, there is an old saying: out of sight, out of mind.


  1. The Biden administration must quickly appoint the American envoy to Asean after four years of absence. Lest we forget, the US was the first country to establish an Asean mission in Jakarta in 2011. Beginning next year, most of the meetings will either be conducted through teleconference or face-to-face at the newly built Asean Secretariat. Therefore, the American chief of mission is urgently needed. All dialogue partners have deployed their dedicated ambassadors to Asean.


  1. The recently signed mega-trade pact, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Cooperation (RCEP), shows off Asean’s persuasive power and inner strength. The incoming president must not make the mistake of believing that the RCEP is a China-led undertaking, as the western media have made it out to be. It must be reiterated that it is an Asean initiative that was launched in 2012 by the bloc, which has been leading the negotiations for the past eight years. The defunct TransPacific Partnership was truly America-led and the renewed Comprehensive and Progressive Transpacific Partnership was spearheaded by Japan.


  1. Remember too that Asean respects seniority. As the oldest leader among the dialogue partners, Mr Biden will be well received and respected whenever he visits the region in the next four years. Generally speaking, Southeast Asian people also respect and take care of the elderly and are willing to listen. That was one of the reasons for the low numbers of COVID-19 casualties among elderly citizens in Asean, in contrast with the US and Europe.


  1. Please, no human rights preaching during the visits. Given his deep conviction to defend human rights and democracy both inside and outside his own country, the president-elect must be cautious in handling these sensitive issues on liberal norms and values. It is absolutely a non-starter. Asean member countries do care about human rights and democracy. They prefer to discuss them informally and wherever possible in a discreet manner. The grouping has the Asean Intergovernmental Commissioner for Human Rights and Asean Human Rights Declaration, for which Washington can provide assistance in capacity building in transparent ways to help them reach international standards. In the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand, domestic human rights defenders are fearless.


  1. Asean is a miniature of the global political system with a myriad of peculiarities and personality traits due to its members’ cultural and ethnic diversity. Asean comprises full and half-baked democracies, one-party and coalition-party governance and a sultanate. The region is also home to the world’s major religions, including Islam, Christianity and Buddhism. Nearly 65 percent of its 655 million citizens are young, dynamic and tech-savvy. Take advantage of them.


  1. Former President Obama managed to win the hearts of Asean youth. He was the only world leader who traveled to the Asean member countries and conducted town-hall meetings with young students and aspirants. Utilizing the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiatives, President Obama managed to reach out to more than 60,000 young people, across 10-member Asean countries in town-hall-style conversations. These remarkable events were held in Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar, which granted special permission for him to address audiences. There were no outcries of political interference.


  1. As president, Mr Biden must hold a special US-Asean summit inside the US as and when the post-pandemic situation permits. Mr Biden’s former boss, Mr Obama, left a great legacy through the 2016 special summit with the Asean leaders in California. He personally extended the invitation in Kuala Lumpur in October 2015. The Sunnylands Declaration was the milestone of the excellent Asean-US ties. Due to COVID-19, Donald Trump canceled the scheduled Las Vegas summit in March without any backup plan at all. Worse, less than 72 hours before the Eighth Asean-US Summit and the 15th East-Asia Summit (EAS) early this month, President Trump asked National Security Council chief Michael O’Brien to stand in for him while Vice-President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did not even care to sit in. Notably, other EAS leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, did.

The incoming Asean chair has been waiting patiently for a decade for the participation of a US president. During Brunei’s chair in 2013, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah hoped to host Mr Obama. After all, he piloted his 747 plane to Washington DC for an official bilateral visit in March 2013 and invited the then president to attend the East Asia Summit and the first US-Asean Summit in Bandar Seri Begawan. Unexpectedly, at the last minute, President Obama had to cancel his long-planned trip to deal with the sudden crisis at home caused by the US government’s partial shutdown due to budgetary conflicts among lawmakers.

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