OpEd: ASEAN Through American Eyes

(The following OpEd was written by Amb. David Carden, and appeared in Today newspaper in Singapore on August 2, 2012)

The United States’ comprehensive engagement with ASEAN and our multifaceted support for the Association’s goals form a central pillar of our broader rebalancing to the Asia Pacific region.  We share the aspirations ASEAN articulated in its Charter: a secure, democratic, and prosperous Southeast Asia.  Fulfillment of ASEAN’s vision will require it to resolve a host of challenges that are both longstanding and increasingly complex. These include the need to reverse environmental degradation; provide adequate food, water, and energy for young and growing populations; expand educational opportunities; cultivate rule of law and civil society participation in governance; and forge ever closer cooperation while ensuring that each of ASEAN’s ten countries has the opportunity and capacity to shape its own national destiny.

The United States imposes no conditions on its relationship with ASEAN.  We believe only a strong, united, and effective ASEAN can accomplish its goals.  For this reason, some might believe recent reports of ASEAN disunity and dissension at its recent Ministerial meeting in Phnom Penh should be cause for U.S. concern.  Indeed recent press reports have cited ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ failure to issue a Joint Communiqué after the meeting as indicating ASEAN’s systemic inability to realize its aspirations and manage the serious problems it needs to address to be relevant.  I disagree.

Lost in the press narrative is an obvious observation that has escaped attention.  While its methods are not always smooth, easy, or understandable to outside observers, ASEAN has largely succeeded in the goals it set for itself at its founding: to promote regional cooperation and community, to strengthen regional stability and promote peaceful economic development, and to ensure security from outside interference in order to preserve its member states’ national identities.  Since its founding, ASEAN has grown from a modest forum for regional cooperation to an institutionalized organization responsible for a broad range of practical cooperation, and the driver of broader regional economic, political, and security integration.  I believe it can succeed in the new goals it has set for itself as the center of Asia’s emerging regional architecture.

What is notable is that for the first time in 45 years, whether ASEAN issued a Joint Communiqué or not is a topic of more than minor consequence beyond the halls of the region’s chancelleries, classrooms, and news bureaus.  ASEAN has been issuing declarations and signing agreements for over four decades, and yet no more than a handful of people remember what was discussed at prior Ministerials.  By contrast, now it is broadly accepted that the series of circumstances behind this latest intramural ASEAN debate merits the world’s scrutiny, and may hold important messages that will shape the network of interactions in the region.  At the same time recent questions concerning ASEAN’s solidarity give us an opportunity to reflect on why the United States is so invested in the organization’s relevance, resiliency, and success.

Under the Obama Administration, the United States has made a commitment to work with and support ASEAN as the central player in the Asia Pacific region’s emerging diplomatic architecture.  ASEAN-centric multilateralism is compatible with and supportive of other elements of our rebalancing to Asia.  These include reaching out to new strategic partners, promoting adherence to known and respected international laws and standards of behavior, and finding innovative platforms to nourish the bilateral military alliances and partnerships that have provided the foundation for the peace and stability that have enabled the economic dynamism this region enjoys.  Our investment in multilateralism and the ASEAN process also recognizes the multidimensionality of the challenges facing the region, and the reality that no one party has the power or influence to chart this region’s future.  ASEAN’s ten member states, which have different histories, languages, religions and political systems, embody the culture of consultation and compromise that the Association cultivates and that broader regional cooperation will require.

None of us should have expected ASEAN’s work would be easy.  We are here precisely because it is not.  What is at stake is the notion that dialogue, multilateralism, and cooperation are not only desirable but necessary guides as we collectively chart our course in the years ahead.  The region and the world need ASEAN to succeed.  The United States will continue to support its unity and efforts to advance peace, prosperity, and security in the region.