Remarks by Ambassador David Carden at the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council ASEAN Dinner, Washington, D.C.

Ambassador David Carden speaks at the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council Dinner.
Ambassador David Carden speaks at the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council Dinner.

I am delighted to join you this evening. I thank the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council for bringing us together.

As many of you know, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has existed since 1967, when it was founded by its five original members. In preparing for my present position, I became a student of its history and its development. I also became aware that some have said it has yet to fulfill its initial promise, that it has avoided making the hard decisions, that it is a victim of “the ASEAN Way,” which mandates unanimity. I disagree with these views. I think ASEAN has accomplished a great deal by providing a forum for regional conversations. Its early success has positioned it now to accomplish much more, through its ambitious plans to integrate into a common economic, political/security, and socio-cultural community. It is my privilege, as our Ambassador to ASEAN, to bear witness and provide assistance to this process.

Our Mission to ASEAN has a broad portfolio addressing each of ASEAN’s areas of integration. But, tonight it is appropriate for me to single out ASEAN’s efforts to integrate into a common economic community. It is an ambitious undertaking. Not so long ago, it would have been thought unthinkable. Now, it would be a mistake not to believe it will happen.  We need to be there when it does, and help when and where we can to make it a reality.

I know you will agree that a peaceful, prosperous, and more integrated Southeast Asia is good for the world, the United States and for American business. As the United States’ fourth largest export market, ASEAN provides remarkable opportunity. Our presence and support now for this dynamic region of 580 million people will help ensure markets for U.S. goods and services for decades.

We just concluded the 24th ASEAN-U.S. Dialogue last week—a gathering of more than 70 U.S. and ASEAN senior officials to discuss a range of issues. The message from the Dialogue is clear: The U.S.-ASEAN relationship is deepening and opportunities exist.

Since 2009, American involvement in Southeast Asia has grown. Often, American business has led the way by working with ASEAN, supporting its integration, and increasing opportunities. The Obama Administration has significantly expanded our government’s commitment to ASEAN partners. President Obama has put in place a strong infrastructure to support a deep and lasting engagement with ASEAN.

My first month on the job has made clear that my new ASEAN friends want a strong U.S. presence in the region, not solely as a security guarantor, but as an investor, trade partner, and resource for education and innovation. ASEAN wants and needs our competence.

We can, and should, influence and sustain ASEAN as it integrates.

Why do I say this? Because a stable world is a world where we can find solutions to our joint problems. Because we have been at this place before and know the way forward is to develop free markets that are intolerant of abuse. Because, America is not the only player in Asia. Our competitors are nimble and driven. They have the advantage of proximity. They have been and will continue to be on the ground in the region. And, they are investing in ASEAN’s success, even though returns on their investments may be uncertain and long-term.

In a word, they are being strategic, not tactical. They want to shape the market that is evolving in the region in their own image. We need to be present to make the case that if ASEAN is to realize the future it wants for itself, then its markets need to develop to be free and fair. If we are convincing, ASEAN will prosper, and so will we.

The U.S. Government is making the case. It has allocated nearly $642 million dollars annually across Southeast Asia in development assistance and capacity building programs, mainly on the bilateral level.

Approximately 38% of these funds went to ASEAN’s less developed states. Helping to bridge the gap between ASEAN’s least and most developed economies supports its key goals and is good for exports of high-value American goods and services.

Besides our bilateral programs, the United States allocated $16 million last year in assistance to Asian regional initiatives. These programs aim to strengthen ASEAN’s capacity to realize its integration objectives by 2015.

These programs enable us to share perspectives and best practices from our policy and business communities, facilitate discourse between member states’ technical agencies, support creation of regional trade protocols, and improve monitoring of member implementation of ASEAN regional commitments.

But these efforts are not enough. We need American business to do what it does best – provide its leadership and expertise to ensure ASEAN develops markets that are free, fair, and protect intellectual property rights. You need to show up, to be and stay on the ground in the region, to engage ASEAN daily in its effort to integrate. We can help, but we need you as our partners. How do we begin?

First, we need to ensure that the U.S. ASEAN Mission is in all regional conversations—that it is utilized as a resource by all agencies in the U.S. Government and by American business.

Second, we need you to think in ways you might not have thought before.

Third, we need to be more aware of what constitutes “progress.” ASEAN may be a slow train coming, but we need to stay on board.

I want to end with something more tangible. In ASEAN the word is “connectivity.” At the 2010 Summit in Hanoi, ASEAN released its Master Plan of Connectivity. I urge you to familiarize yourselves with the Plan’s outline.

On one level, the Plan is a compendium of projects that if executed should help ASEAN countries trade together more efficiently and link with the broader region.

Other projects, in the transportation, energy and communications sectors, for instance, merit close investigation by the American private sector. The Plan also includes institutional and people-to-people connectivity, which are areas where our private sector involvement could have a constructive, long-term impact.

An active response to ASEAN connectivity by American business would assist ASEAN governments in honoring the plans they have made.  Despite its grand vision, ASEAN understands that American investors will only respond to the Connectivity initiative if they see the prospect of positive returns.

ASEAN colleagues have advised me that businesses investigating connectivity-related projects in member countries might see an added level of national government endorsement. This backing creates space for investments in capacity building, such as in education and training.

We stand ready to work with you to make these efforts effective and visible to ASEAN leaders. We will not waver in promoting transparency and fairness in conversations with our foreign friends and counterparts.

For the Long Term, Think Regionally.

I encourage you to maintain a long-term vision of a better connected, more prosperous ASEAN region – an ASEAN open to American business, where governments execute policy decisions based on wisdom, not on internal or external pressures, and where businesses and people make purchase decisions based on superiority of product and service.

I am convinced if you invest in a manner that supports and furthers ASEAN’s vision, that will build capacity and markets that safeguard your long-term participation and profitability.

Let’s be in this ongoing ASEAN conversation together. Our ability to meet the challenges facing American businesses in Southeast Asia has real consequences for American prosperity. We owe it to ourselves, our country, and our children to get this right.