ASEAN-U.S. Relations: What are the Talking Points?

ASEAN-U.S. Relations

Author(s): Pavin Chachavalpongpun

ISBN:          9814311553

Publisher: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore

Year:          2012

Price:         $55.90

Reviewed by B.M. Jain, Professor and Senior Fellow, Indian Council of Social Science  Research, Jaipur, India

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations(ASEAN) was established  during the Cold War era in August 1967, with five founding members— Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand—with an  objective to keep the region free from the rivalry of superpowers to ensure peace and stability in the region. Over the years, the strength of ASEAN went on expanding with the joining of five more countries— Brunei Darussalam, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia. With the end of the Cold War, ASEAN’s goals and activities have multiplied, focusing on accelerating economic growth, on encouraging free trade and investment, on fighting terrorism and cyber crime, and also on evolving appropriate strategies to deal with natural disasters. This apart, ASEAN has gone a step further by committing itself to achieving the goal of ASEAN Community by the year 2015. The ASEAN vision 2020, adopted by ASEAN leaders at its 30th anniversary clearly stipulated to work towards developing a “community of caring societies.”

Given the rapid economic progress and dynamism, ASEAN has been able to draw major powers such as USA, China, India, Russia and Japan into its fold as its full dialogue partners. On the other hand, China’s rapid rise as a global power has caused a serious consternation among its member nations.  Given this, ASEAN-US ties are viewed as critically significant for ensuring regional peace, security and stability in a long- term perspective, especially in the wake of the fast changing milieu at the regional and international level.

As  Pavin Chachavalpongpun, the editor, writes in the preface, the book is a product of a workshop organized by the ASEAN Studies Centre in July 2010. The book is divided into two parts. The first part deals with an overview of ASEAN-U.S. relations. The second part discusses “specific issues” raised by diplomats and scholars in their respective contributions, including two keynote speeches delivered by Louis Mazel, Deputy Chief of Mission of the U.S. Embassy in Singapore, and Ambassador Minda Calaguian-Cruz.

 Contributors to this volume  include Ambassadors, ex-diplomats, academics and senior research fellows who have presented their views and opinions on ASEAN-US relations in a coherent perspective, although with minute differences. In all, there are eleven contributors who offer fresh perspectives on ASEAN- U.S. multiple ties. A common theme that runs through the entire volume is the salience and implications of US-ASEAN relations for regional security, stability and development.

  1. Kesavapany in his contribution titled U.S Engagement with ASEAN, endeavors  to pinpoint  that the U.S. “ re-engagement” with ASEAN  in the context of  President Obama’s  participation in the APEC meeting in Singapore in November 2009,was an “ important milestone” in the U.S.-ASEAN   relationship. He discusses the United States’ economic and strategic interests in Southeast Asian region since ASEAN offers a key export market to America. However, Kesavapany maintains that “its[US] importance  has been falling just as China’s has been increasing.”(p.4). Though  Kesavapany does  agree that U.S. military presence in the region is vitally  important, he has not  purveyed some concrete evidence to  substantiate his contention as  to how and why  America’s importance in the region  has declined. On the contrary, there is another school of thought that argues that in light of a rapid rise of China, ASEAN countries have realized the indispensability of the U.S. military and strategic presence to rebalance the incremental role and influence of China in the region.

 Chapters 2 to 4   focus on U.S.  economic, trade, political and strategic interests in the region as well as on its role in maintaining peace and stability in the region, including  nuclear non-proliferation, counterterrorism, combating transnational crimes. Minda Calaguian-Cruz writes that U.S. interest in the region reflects its signing of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia in 2009. Cruz regrets that dialogue partners in ASEAN have not been able to have “legally binding free trade agreement” (p.11) with ASEAN because of differing economic policies and priorities. Cruz concludes that ASEAN-US relations will be mainly guided by the 2005 Joint Vision Statement on ASEAN-US Enhanced Partnership.

 In chapter 4, R.C. Severino discusses engagement of Russia and the United States with East Asia. He contends that U.S. strategic and military presence in the region is being looked upon by most of East Asian capitals as a “critical factor in regional security and stability.”(p.20). In chapter 5, Pavin Chachapongpun reviews the importance of participation of America and Russia in East Asia summits. Although the moot question arises whether their presence will minimize China’s “increasing domination” of the EAS, Chachapongpun does not answer it. He concludes that the U.S. membership to EAS will serve ASEAN’s goals and interests. How? It remains to be answered.

 In chapter 6, Scot Marciel brilliantly analyses how and why the U.S. relationship with ASEAN and Southeast Asia looms large in American foreign policy and diplomacy. He closely observes that “the perception did exist that the United States was not as engaged (e.g. in Southeast Asia) as it should be “(p.28). In fact, early relations of the U.S. with ASEAN were mainly in the field of economics, trade and development. But a greater engagement between them began in 2002 with the establishment of the U.S.-ASEAN Cooperation Plan, culminating into the signing of a Joint Vision Statement in 2005, which sought to create “enhanced partnership” between U.S. and ASEAN. Since December 2008, U.S. diplomacy in East Asia primarily concentrated on security and human rights issues. In July 2008 Secretary Clinton signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation to support ASEAN’s goals and promote “global recovery’ and work together to prevent non-proliferation, for instance, in Iran and North Korea, to combat international crime and terrorism. Marciel rightly concludes that by working together U.S. and ASEAN can effectively meet the “real challenges “as well as non-military threats both regionally and globally.

Chapters 7 and 8 examine and evaluate U.S. maritime security interests and its military role in the region. Ian Storey defends and justifies the U.S. military presence in the region as well as operations of the U.S.Navy in the South China Sea “to assert freedom of navigation rights (p.45). No doubt, America has vital interests in the maintenance of stability and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. Collin S. L. Koh discusses the U.S military role in the region from the Bush administration to the Obama administration. The Bush administration had labeled Southeast Asia as “the second front” in the global war on terror. With the signing of the U.S.-ASEAN counterterrorism agreement in 2002, the Bush administration reassured ASEAN countries that America had no intention to station ground troops in the region. The Obama administration, unlike its predecessor, “takes on a more moderate approach towards security issues” (p.64). Koh in his concluding part writes that ASEAN and the United States should encourage India and China “to participate more actively in burden sharing” (p.75) to deal with non-traditional threats(NTS).

 In chapter 9, Bio Zhiyue examines U.S. China relations, which he thinks, are indispensable for global security and stability. Bilaterally and multilaterally, both the countries have their legitimate concerns and interests. For instance, China’s major concerns include Taiwan, Tibet and Xinxiang, and human rights. For the United States, the major concern is about China’s currency exchange manipulation, which in American perception is not a fair game on the part of China. Interestingly, Zhiyue holds the view that U.S. needs China more than China needs the United States. For instance, China’s cooperation on North Korea’s nuclear tangle and on Iran’s controversial nuclear programme is considered very useful by the United States.

Chapter 10 explains how and why there has been a paradigm shift in U.S. policy towards Myanmar, especially during the Obama administration, although Myanmar has not been on the priority of US foreign policy. At the same time America has been pressing hard   Myanmar’s military junta to moderate its stance on democracy’s crusader Aung Suu Kyi  in order to  facilitate  democracy to take roots in Myanmar. But so long as U.S. sanctions against Myanmar’s military rulers continue, it will be excruciatingly difficult for the U.S. goal of implementing liberal democracy in Myanmar. Chapter 11 evaluates the U.S. assistance to ASEAN through the ASEAN Development Vision to Advance National Cooperation Program (ADVANCE), which will have a long term impact on the development needs of the region.

In brief, the book is of a great topical importance. Its value would have certainly much increased had the ASEAN-US ties been discussed  more comprehensively and examined  more analytically, excepting two or three papers. Despite this shortcoming, the volume offers fresh insights into and perspectives on the dynamics of the ASEAN-US relationship.  The book would be immensely useful for public policy elites, research scholars and students who have interest in the region.

Suggested citation:

B.M. Jain (2013). Review of “ASEAN-U.S. Relations: What are the Talking Points” edited by Pavin Chachavalpongpun, East Asian Integration Studies, Vol. 6, no. 2, Internet file: