(The following are remarks, as prepared, by Amb. David Carden to attendees of an event at the Asia Foundation. The event was held on March 15, 2012.)
I’m delighted to be here this afternoon and for the opportunity to speak again at the Asia Foundation. After nearly a year spent in the region as the first resident U.S. Ambassador to ASEAN, I appreciate the Asia Foundation’s willingness to host and to serve as a home base for stateside discussions on ASEAN. It is also worth mentioning that this year marks the 35th anniversary of the U.S.-ASEAN relationship, so I thank you for being part of our longstanding engagement with the region and for your attention to this very important partner.
I am asked almost daily by contacts in the region about whether or not the United States is in Southeast Asia to stay. I believe our actions to date make our commitment to the region – and especially the commitment of the President – readily apparent. So today, since I’m back in the United States, I’d like to talk instead about where ASEAN stands, and convene a discussion on ASEAN’s commitment to the vision it laid out for itself in the 2008 ASEAN Charter.
ASEAN today is on the brink of real progress toward the goals it enumerated for itself in the ASEAN Charter, the ASEAN Roadmap, and in other ASEAN documents. But it still stands at a crossroads. ASEAN governments will need to deliver on their leaders’ commitments, and will need to find a way to make the organization take up the leadership role they have forged for ASEAN.
Allow me to remind you that the stakes for ASEAN are high. An integrated ASEAN, with its 600 million citizens, is a hugely attractive business market. An integrated political/security community in which ten countries share a common platform on regional and global challenges has the potential to be a key force in shaping the regional architecture and the international response to regional and global challenges.
Should ASEAN member states pursue a different path or to put integration efforts on the back burner, we’ll see a different scenario play out in the region.
So where does ASEAN stand today? And where does the U.S.-ASEAN relationship stand?
Collectively, ASEAN and the United States are each other’s fourth largest trading partners. U.S. businesses have invested over $150 billion in cumulative direct investment, and ASEAN’s trade with the United States totals over $178 billion yearly. Southeast Asia is one of the few places in the world where most economies continue to grow at a rapid pace. And the United States has a big stake in ensuring this growth is sustainable, for U.S. businesses, U.S. jobs, and U.S. interests.
While there’s much to be done by ASEAN member states to ensure their markets trend away from the extractive industries toward sustainable economic systems, countries have made strides toward becoming an integrated single market. With U.S. support, ASEAN has embarked on the creation of a regional ASEAN Single Window, a one-stop customs clearance system.
ASEAN has authored the ASEAN Master Plan on Connectivity, a plan that identifies necessary infrastructure, communications, and institutional connections that will enable ASEAN’s integration in the political/security and economic spheres, as well as improving connections between and among its citizens.
On the political and security fronts, ASEAN is working to create a common platform toward tackling the regional and global issues we all face – problems of transnational crime, terrorism, climate change, pandemic disease, trafficking in persons, and many others. On social and cultural issues, ASEAN is building an ASEAN University Network and creating a regional curriculum for its students, promoting the idea of a Southeast Asian identity in addition to a Vietnamese identity, a Filipino identity, or an Indonesian identity.
The United States has been a stalwart supporter of ASEAN’s vision of cooperation and integration, as embodied in the ASEAN Charter and in the ASEAN roadmap. ASEAN’s planners have identified where the organization can and should go by 2015, but implementation of these plans differs from place to place, and opinions within the organization vary as to whether or not 2008’s aims can or should come to fruition.
We’re hopeful that ASEAN can deliver on its goals, and there is reasonable cause to think it can.
For instance, ASEAN has correctly identified the importance of a robust civil society in promoting change. Last year, civil society organizations from across ASEAN met with the leaders at the ASEAN Summit in May. Since then, ASEAN has organized a regional business organization, the ASEAN Business Club, to promote the needs of its businesses that are now more than ever beginning to look at regional business strategies, instead of a Malaysian business strategy, a Thailand business strategy, or the like.
Under the umbrella of ASEAN Connectivity, ASEAN is looking to reform transportation policy. Governments have realized the need to invest in long overdue national and cross-border infrastructure. And ASEAN recognizes the need to close the gap between ASEAN’s richest and poorest members.
So it’s fair to say that ASEAN has the ability, especially with support from other regional actors – to deliver on the aspirations enshrined in the 2008 Charter. And there is great potential for it to follow on this path of reform towards the goals signed on to. But the road is not going to be easy.
Many ASEAN countries will need to undertake daunting reforms. Governments will need to create or improve the rule of law inside their countries. Our ASEAN colleagues will need to commit to both protecting and promoting human rights. They need to reform their court systems to ensure that contracts are honored and that citizens and businesses can use the courts to protect their investments.
Governments will need to tackle corruption and repeal protectionist economic policies. Bankruptcy protections need to be put in place, and labor mobility must be improved throughout the region. Dispute resolution mechanisms need to be implemented and used whenever crisis erupts.
This is quite a list of challenges. While we are hopeful that ASEAN is up to these tasks and that there are strong indications that ASEAN will embark on these and other necessary reforms, it is possible, too, that ASEAN may renege on its commitments.
Should this happen, though, ASEAN would risk losing the international prestige and the role it has built for itself in the regional architecture. It would be unable to contribute to the efforts of the United States and other partners to create a secure, safe, and prosperous Southeast Asia.
Instead, we look to ASEAN to take the steps to help create a secure, safe, and prosperous region, though ASEAN’s future will only be determined by ASEAN itself.
We hope ASEAN continues to pursue the goals it has established for itself, and we’re prepared to continue to offer our staunch support in helping it deliver on its commitments. In addition to a host of ongoing capacity-building projects we support each year, we will continue to engage with ASEAN at the highest levels.
Secretary Clinton will travel this year to Phnom Penh to participate in her fourth ASEAN Regional Forum. The President is slated to meet ASEAN leaders again at this year’s East Asia Summit and the fourth ASEAN-U.S. Leaders Meeting. This senior-level attention from the United States reflects the importance we attach to ASEAN. I pledge to spend each and every day in my capacity as the President’s representative to embody our commitment to the region and to the ASEAN institution.
We will do all we can to support ASEAN’s evolution, because a peaceful, secure, and prosperous Southeast Asia is good for the United States, and it is even more important for ASEAN’s citizens and governments. We’re working to support ASEAN to deliver on its promises and choose the right path. Because if ASEAN can accomplish what it has set out to do, possibilities for its people are limitless.