This post was written by website writer, Denea Bascombe.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2017. It was founded on August 8th, 1967 to promote regional economic, political, and security cooperation by the founding fathers of Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. Today, it is comprised of ten members, with the original five plus Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam. The role of ASEAN has changed over the fifty years of its existence, but its adherence to the belief in regionalism has maintained consistent. A 1992 article by S. Rajaratnam in Singapore (written when the North America Free Trade Area (NAFTA) and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) were still new regional approaches) highlighted that the counter-pressures of globalism had made regionalism more difficult to maintain, but optimism existed in that ASEAN was beginning to reflect some of the successes of the more developed European Community (EC). ASEAN is working towards increased security in the region, and maintains the reputation of managing cohesive internal relations and positive international operations.
Today, ASEAN holds regional ground, especially where the participation of the United States in international trade and its affected political influence creates increased uncertainty towards globalism. The uncertainty of the United States’ commitment to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) under a Trump administration may further develop existing sentiments regarding the benefits of Asia-Pacific foreign policy that is less reliant on the United States. This may only be increased by the fact that the Philippines holds the position of 2017 ASEAN Chair; President Rodrigo Duterte has been distancing his country from the United States, including its military cooperation. With the Philippines’ lost position as the United States’ closest ally in the ASEAN region, the role of the United States in Southeast Asian policy, especially over the long term, is increasingly uncertain. This is made only the more complex by the United States’ unclear foreign policy position towards China in early 2017.
Though Duterte may be unpredictable in some aspects of his leadership, including some activities that call in to question the existence of human rights violations, in other aspects, his policies have provided stability for the region. This includes the surging economic growth in the Philippines, which he strives to expand throughout ASEAN due to his conviction in regionalism, and bettering relations with China, even with the existence of the South China/ West Philippine Sea dispute. Prior to Duterte, ASEAN had not seen such a clear pivot away from the United States, a country providing military and other support, and towards China. However, this could be for the betterment of ASEAN’s ability to produce a clear consensus on issues affecting ASEAN and China. A potential conflict to be aware of, though one that is out of the scope of this editorial, is the potential for some of Duterte’s controversial national policies, especially his insistent drug policies, to cause rifts among ASEAN member states. Still, keeping issues separated, this is unlikely to affect ASEAN’s external relations.
Unfortunately, Duterte’s turn away from the United States is one that the Asia Foundation would highly advise against based on its 2016 report titled Asian Views on America’s Role in Asia: The Future of the Rebalance. The report highlights, among other recommendations, that the United States must “maintain a robust, sustained, and consistent American presence in the Asia-Pacific”; “revive the TPP”; “continue to play a leading role in non-traditional security” and “continue to project American ‘soft power’”. This poses questions as to whether the Philippines’ perception of a United States presence reflects the opinions of other ASEAN member states.
ASEAN’s role in 2017 will largely dictate the extent to which the United States maintains leadership in Asia and internationally. It will also maintain a large influence over ASEAN cooperation with China, and the prospective of heightened or minimized tensions in the South China/West Philippine Sea. Both relationships may be considered of equal importance to ASEAN due to the economic, political, and security implications. However, with the Philippines holding the 2017 ASEAN Chair and its recent statements against United States involvement, it is unlikely that both relationships will be equally pursued. Perhaps part of ASEAN success in this area will depend on whether the United States maintains a balanced relationship with China, and whether there is any reason why ASEAN would be unable to separately and equally pursue their bilateral relationships with the United States and China.