Remarks by Ambassador David Carden on U.S.-ASEAN Engagement at the Asia Foundation

On-the-Record Remarks by Ambassador David Carden on U.S.-ASEAN Engagement
The Asia Foundation
September 15, 2011
(As Delivered)

First off, thank you very much for the opportunity to be here. I look forward to speaking to this group as often as I can. While I have only been in Jakarta about six months, every day there is worth seven in some respects and by some calculations, and so I feel like I have been there quite a long while.

I have some prepared remarks, which in some respects are the ‘Greek chorus’ of my days. They’re with me all the time and really want to be said very often. But I want to start someplace else and I was thinking this morning how I might put all of this in some context with regard to some recent event or anecdote in what I have been doing. So I thought I would just tell you about a conversation that I had in mid-August in Manado.

I don’t know how many of you have been to Manado, but Manado is near the edge of the Earth. The Philippine plate is sucked up there underneath the Asian plate, there are volcanoes going off, one expects to see pterodactyls. It’s a very beautiful place, maybe the best place in the world to go diving – an extraordinary environment. I was there for an Economic and Trade Ministers’ Meeting and the conversation was mostly all about connectivity. I don’t know how many of you really know what that means as regards ASEAN, but connectivity, as I have said in another context, is sort of the plastics of ASEAN. It is sort of the way to the future.  What is meant by connectivity in ASEAN is generally infrastructure. So I had the opportunity to speak to a very small group – it must have been about 150 students, professors, local businessmen (reference back to my description of Menado), and local politicians.

I was on the stage with three of my friends – the Indonesian Ambassador to ASEAN, Mr Ngurah Swajaya, the Japanese Ambassador, Mr Takio Yamada, and Mr Jan Wilhelm who is the DCM at the Netherlands Embassy and he basically has the ASEAN hat. So the conversation, as I said, was all about connectivity and my friend Ngurah went first with a very detailed, granual and a wonderful presentation about connectivity that used abundant slides – none of which I think anybody in the audience really could read – because for the most part most people spoke Bahasa. Actually Ngurah made his presentation in Bahasa, which left me a little bit in the shade, but not completely. So then Takio went and essentially did the same thing, and by the time both Ngurah and Takio were done there really wasn’t very much to be said about connectivity that I thought was useful. And I had no slides as I hadn’t really thought I needed any slides. Nobody in the audience had really read the slides that had been up there, but that’s neither here nor there – let me follow the conversation.

So I knew an awful lot had been said about connectivity and by that they were talking ports and roads and infrastructure of all kinds. So it’s far to say, that the enthusiasm and excitement for the United States being in the region – and I am the incarnation of that for the moment – is palpable. There is a great deal of anticipation about what I’m going to say on any given occasion. Which has caused me by the way to write my own remarks as a general rule (there are some exceptions to that) and I never give the same speech twice. I sometimes borrow some bits and pieces and I’m going to borrow one from Manado in just a moment.

I decided that I would just go off road for a little while and talk. I began to describe this place that had no shared currency, lots of religious tension, the inheritance of colonialism, that had violence particularly at its borders, that had been guilty of significant deforestation, and on and on. A fairly long list I will tell you, including things that got down in the weeds a far distance. Everybody is shaking their heads because they are understanding enough English to know that I was really talking about ASEAN. That these are all of the elements of each of the countries essentially. And then I paused for dramatic effect, and I said “I’m talking about the United States in 1775”.

It was interesting, the reaction of the room, because it was sort of like it was like one of those movies you watch where they thought they knew what was going  to happen and all of a sudden something very different happens. There was a moment when almost no one knew what to say, including myself. I was just trying to react as to how I should deal with them in the circumstances and so I paused momentarily and I said solemnly, “you’re going to build your roads, you’re going to build your bridges, you’re going to build your ports, you’re going to have your internet connections you’re going to have all those things that your heart most desires that we have been talking about today and which is talked about every day in this region. What I don’t know is if they have the institutions to make it matter.”

And so I spoke then about why the United States had gone from its state of existence in 1775 to its present state of existence, talking by the way about mistakes that we had made, because I talk about our mistakes fairly liberally. What I really was saying, and it’s not terribly revolutionary for this group, particularly for the Asia Foundation which is so dedicated to these things and which is part of my pleasure for being here today. What I was really talking about is how we are going to get to the point where the quality of life and where markets and civil society, and empowerment of people, the transparency that’s necessary – how are we going to get there?

There was, I guess there’s only way to say it – again it had nothing to do with me – there was just excitement in the room to think that somehow they were even in a conversation about institutions and the like that could leave to a better place in the region. I felt badly in some respects for having kind of turned the corner so sharply on my friends Ngurah and Takio, and I left Jan-Willem Blankert (Special Adviser on ASEAN at the EU Delegation in Jakarta) who was coming after me with actually not much to do at that point. He got spanked, as did Takio, because of the war. There were some very old people in the room and it was kind of interesting.

I’m delighted to be here today and I will talk about what’s coming up this fall. But I do want to say that I am aware that the Asia Foundation has been paying attention to issues that I pay attention to on a daily basis for quite a long while.  And many of you of course, if not all of you since I don’t know all that you do, pay attention to issues that I pay attention too as well and I thank you for that, because a lot of help is necessary at this time.

It is the case that the Asia Foundation is in eight of the ten countries that are in ASEAN. They are not in Burma and they are not in Brunei, at least as I looked at it. But my guess is that at some point in the future they might be in those places as well. So, the Asia Foundation led the way in many respects, and I’m a student of what it’s done to a degree.  I look forward to learning more. I look forward to learning much about what you have done, some of you I have met. So I’ll fill you in a little bit on what has been happening in ASEAN. But I want to give you just a little bit background first and make certain that we are all on the same page.

I think everybody here knows… I’m going to go to my Greek chorus as you know, these remarks get cleared, so I’m good to go with all of this.  Although I have fiddled with them a little this morning.

The ASEAN countries are home to almost 600 million people as I think you all know, and these are allegedly rapidly developing economies. I say allegedly because these are extraction economies in some respects and those numbers are always a little bit harder to get at, but nevertheless they have been growing fairly rapidly, although the highest unemployment rates I will add are among the most educated – which is concerning. They are home to multiple religions and different forms of government, including democracies and those governments that are not chosen by the people. They also face natural disasters, and climate change and pressing transnational challenges more almost than any other place on the planet. Indonesia has I think, 79 active volcanoes.

In a world that is increasingly interconnected, sovereign states are finding it increasingly hard to go it alone, there is a lot of interesting philosophical conversation to have about that but what it has led to is the use of multilateral institutions to at least identify and have conversations concerning cross-border problems in the hopes of finding reach cross-border solutions. And so ASEAN itself is a kind of laboratory for assessing the forces of globalization and responding to issues and problems that put, I think, the entire world at risk.  The United States government agrees with the Asia Foundation and all of its past work that we cannot afford not to be there. Sorry for the double negative; we need to be there. And that is why I am there and why I am here today.

The welcome I have received in my first half-year of my tenure in Jakarta has itself been instructive. And many times I respond to questions about what ASEAN can be, based upon on the reception that I’ve gotten.  Because there is no cause for the reception I have gotten based on personal charm. It has everything to do with the fact that the United States is there and people are happy for it. In meetings with my ASEAN counterparts, public events and I’m somewhat reluctant to say, late night Ambassadorial occasional karaoke sessions, which are really remarkable to see as the Ambassadors sing to one another other. I can tell you, because I have done it. The message is clear though: that ASEAN wants the United States there and it wants it involved in shaping the important developments in the region and beyond.

The ASEAN countries want the U.S. to maintain its attention even though the region has been described by some as “relatively peaceful” or “free of crisis.” My consistent response has been the truth: which is we are there to stay.  I don’t very much cotton to the notion that we have not been there, but I am confronted fairly regularly with the fact that we have been ‘missing in action’ for a little while. That surely cannot be said now. The United States has recognized something very profound in the ASEAN vision, something that appeals to our own ideals and idealism.  Bear witness to the reception I got in Manado.

Achieving ASEAN’s vision for an even more integrated future will not happen overnight, and it certainly won’t happen during my brief time as Ambassador there. But the inexorable progress that it has made has demonstrated and underscored its worthiness and our attention.

That progress has accelerated since ASEAN adopted its Charter in 2007.  And it’s often, let me sit back and say for just a moment, that the history of ASEAN is often cited as some sort of evidence or proof that in fact it hasn’t done very much. But I think it’s very important to think of ASEAN as having essentially a rebirth with the Charter in 2007, and it’s a very interesting question about why the Charter was passed then. But I believe that the time that has followed, the 4-5 years that have come after the implementation of that Charter, have been very instructive about what ASEAN hopes to be and what it can do. It’s all there in the Charter by the way: economic integration, democracy, human rights, good governance, and sustainable development. Who would have thought? This ambitious blueprint also sets forth how ASEAN plans to accomplish these goals, including the establishment of the ASEAN Community by 2015.

ASEAN’s recent leadership has continued the progress that I think was bound up in the Charter and has furthered ASEAN’s ambitions, and also earned our attention. We have seen qualitative steps in leadership since that time, including Vietnam’s very effective Chairmanship in 2010 and Indonesia’s leadership this year. And we look forward to what Cambodia is going to do. There are some subjects and I think some themes that Cambodia is going to be pursuing that deserve our attention for sure, and support.

The progress is also continuing through all the formal meetings that take place in the region. In particular in the architecture that is evolving. As I think most of you know, there are any number of regional groups that are ASEAN-centric. It’s hard sometimes to keep them all straight. There will be some time period for us to decide who is ultimately going to do to what. But the reality is these meetings really are carrying the message forward and actually implementing real programs.

And of course we are preparing for the President to attend the third consecutive U.S.-ASEAN Leaders Meeting, an annual event that he inaugurated in November of 2009. While there, we expect to sign our new five-year Plan of Action – something which I negotiated along with my colleagues over a fairly extensive period of time. I take as an aside for a moment – to the extent that anyone thinks ASEAN isn’t serious about what it’s trying to do, it took us a long time to negotiate that document. It is not binding, it’s only aspirational but every word mattered; people really cared what was in it and it was really quite an interesting process. The Plan of Action will map our multilateral engagement with ASEAN’s ten members from now until 2015 and the next phase of course, is a critical one – that phase is a critical one – for ASEAN.

The new Plan of Action highlights cooperation in several key areas of shared interest: human rights and civil society, expanding education and building human capacity, countering proliferation of nuclear weapons and dangerous technologies, protecting the environment, promoting respect for international law and norms, and ensuring the continued peace and security on which the region’s decades of dynamic growth is based.

There is no doubt that the President’s visit to Bali in November for the U.S.-ASEAN Leaders Meeting will continue to elevate our relationship.  The Leaders Meeting will help sustain our high-level engagement and enable us to find additional areas of cooperation. And we will be, of course, highlighting and addressing certain aspects of the Plan of Action as we move forward most immediately.

Then of course there is also the East Asia Summit. President Obama will participate for the first time in the East Asia Summit. This is the first time the United States will be there. This year ASEAN and Indonesia will oversee an expanded East Asia Summit with major Asia Pacific players: Japan, the Republic of Korea, China, Australia, New Zealand, and India, and of course now Russia and ourselves as well.

The expanded EAS in November will call upon ASEAN to justify the centrality it desires and its privilege of providing a platform for encouraging cooperative interaction among Asian Pacific powers. We have made clear that the United States remains firmly committed to the East Asia Summit that is ASEAN-driven and ASEAN-centric.

We believe that one of EAS’s great strengths is its diversity and its reach, stretching now from Moscow through to Tokyo and Seoul. We strongly support the objectives set out in the Kuala Lumpur Declaration of 2005 that positions the EAS as the premier forum for our leaders to discuss strategic political and security issues, while at the same time advancing existing EAS priority areas including education, energy, finance, avian flu and disaster relief.

Broadly speaking, we believe the EAS, as a leader-driven body, can provide strategic oversight and guidance for the key Ministerial-led institutions, including the ASEAN Regional Forum and the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus, which we consider to be complementary and mutually reinforcing institutions.

We realize this approach is not perfect because the ARF has a different set of members from the EAS and the ADMM Plus. But because the core of each institution is ASEAN, and because the objective of each institution is to enhance peace, security, and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific, we believe EAS can and should take the leading role in the region.

We believe the EAS, like the region’s other institutions, must be firmly solutions-oriented to advance members’ clear and increasingly shared objectives. This will require ASEAN and the other members of EAS to step up to ensure that EAS meets its full potential to promote peace, prosperity, and stability. Our hope is to build habits of cooperation and reinforce international laws and norms that have helped to keep the peace and improve security. And in particular, the United States focus will be at the EAS on nonproliferation, maritime security, and disaster management.

I offer in conclusion, that the Bali meetings in November will address realities that ASEAN’s founding states recognized as far back as 1967 and have taken recent steps to really move towards accomplishing.

First, that Southeast Asia occupies a strategic geographical crossroads that would only grow in importance as Asia’s major economies began to assert their historically important roles in global commerce.

Second, with increased attention from regional players, ASEAN countries need to develop institutional structures that protect and empower its men and women, promote justice, protect its environment and wildlife, regulate the exploitation of its resources, avoid and resolve conflict, end the heartache of human trafficking and trafficking in wildlife, encourage sustainable development and manage shared external problems and opportunities.

Third, the challenges that face Asia, whether you call them traditional, non-traditional, or transnational, cannot be resolved unilaterally nor even bilaterally. They require constant and serious deliberation; that begin with and still requires confidence building among its member states.  They are a place where multilateral action in necessary.

Finally, there is value to maintaining a regular multilateral conversation that includes Dialogue Partners. The United States does not view the conversation as the end goal, but we recognize it as a precondition for approaching the end goal we all seek. We are a source of ideas, of influence, investment, and security and we have experience with building and improving institutions. And we have made mistakes that they can learn from if they will listen.

The infrastructure we are putting in place to support America’s multilateral engagement in Asia is not just a recognition of our important strategic interests in a peaceful, stable, and prosperous Southeast Asia.  It’s an exercise in our continued responsibility as a resident power in the Asia Pacific region. It’s a recognition that we need institutions as much as we need roads, rule of law as much as we need ports, good governance as much we need other infrastructure, sustainable development as much as we need short-term approaches to economic challenges. It’s a recognition that we are all in this together, and that we need to act like it if we are going to achieve the future we want for our children.