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CSIS commentary
The U.S.-ASEAN Relationship in 2030
Special Contribution
By Ernest Z. Bower
US President Barack Obama (right) shakes hands with Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra while posing for a camera at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and East Asia summits held on Bali, Indonesia on Nov. 19, 2011.

Thinking about the U.S.-ASEAN relationship in 2030 is a useful exercise for testing the tenets of U.S. strategy in the region and in Asia generally. Does the United States have plans in place that will move it toward a vision—along with ASEAN, its members, and other key actors—that promotes its best interests on issues ranging from economic growth and prosperity to regional security to coping with transnational threats and disaster? And can the United States do so while promoting strong people-to-people ties, innovation, and collaboration? Are we investing in these efforts? Do we have the resources and political will to follow them through to fruition?

The answers are at our fingertips. We have the momentum and resources to make choices. This may not be the case 18 years from now, however.

Big Emerging Market

ASEAN is already a big market for the United States. In fact, it is our fourth-largest trading partner. The United States has nearly three times the investment in ASEAN it has in China, and more than nine times the investment it has in India. However, the United States has lost relative market share in ASEAN, accounting for only 9.1 percent of trade in ASEAN in 2010, down from 20.1 percent in 1998.

By 2030, ASEAN plans to have an economy of $6.5 trillion, the Asian Development Bank predicts the grouping will be home to more than 700 million people, and it will be at the center of the fastest-growing region on the planet. Standard Chartered Bank predicts that, by that time, China, with an estimated $73.5 trillion economy, will likely have overtaken the United States as the largest economy in the world. India, with a $30 trillion economy and a population of 1.6 billion, will have more people than China and will be the world’s third-largest economy. Europe’s population and economic growth pale in comparison to Asia’s.

ASEAN will be at the core of Asian growth. As a region with no unified military, it is the safe center—the meeting place—for Asian growth and integration. ASEAN already has free trade agreements with Australia, China, India, Japan, Korea, and New Zealand. It is the center of most Asian-based efforts to integrate economies, financial systems, and infrastructure and to promote connectivity.

China also has a set vision for economic integration in Asia and wants to lead that effort. Beijing’s preferred structure is ASEAN+3, or the ten ASEAN countries along with China, Japan, and Korea. China is well under way in its efforts to drive an integration strategy through the ASEAN+3 formula and is actively promoting Chinese standards and harmonization objectives. It is even providing technical training to advance Chinese interpretations of important trading structures such as competition laws, indigenous innovation, and other regulatory infrastructure that, once in place, could create a real impediment to firms from outside the region trying to penetrate what should be an enormous and dynamic Asian market in 2030 and beyond.

By 2030, it will be possible to drive from Jakarta to Beijing or Mumbai; Myanmar could once again be one of the rising stars of Asia, wedged like a keystone between India, ASEAN, and China. It will be possible to drop containers of goods in Danang in central Vietnam and have them taken by train west through mainland Southeast Asia or by truck north to southern China.

This vision begs hard questions for the United States. We currently do not have a viable and dynamic trade-opening framework with ASEAN. We have joined the nine-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership talks, but those talks currently include only four of the ten ASEAN members. In fact, three ASEAN members—Laos, Myanmar, and Cambodia—are excluded by the TPP’s rule that all members must be part of APEC.

The United States is also no longer a central player in regional infrastructure projects as it was in the glory days when large U.S. architectural and engineering companies worked closely with forward-deployed aid and economic assistance agencies such as the U.S. Export-Import Bank. Today, U.S. companies are highly competitive in “soft” infrastructure sectors—everything from data analytics and social media to banking and financial systems—but specialize only in niche “hard” infrastructure sectors like telecommunications.

Is it time for the United States to adapt the way it does business and reassess the roles and engagement strategies of its economic agencies? Are U.S. departments and agencies in touch with Asia and adapting their strategies to support U.S. companies as they compete in the emerging Asia? These questions need to be asked and answered by joint government and business task forces.

The United States needs a trade policy that considers its international customers, not just domestic political constituencies. Trade strategies that will be effective in Asia must address practical considerations, taking into account the requirements and cultures of countries, companies, and consumers who will buy U.S. goods and services. To build support for effective strategies, U.S. lawmakers will need to better understand Asia and better explain it to U.S. constituents.

A Safe and Secure Asia Pacific

The United States is on much firmer ground when it comes to security considerations in Asia. It has been the effective guarantor of regional peace and prosperity since the end of World War II. The U.S. military is at home on the seas, in the air, and in between.

For its part, Asia has rediscovered the importance of the U.S. security presence in the region over the last several years. As China’s economic power expanded and the United States was perceived to be distracted in the Middle East, Beijing began to test how much its newfound economic power translates into control and sovereignty over areas of strategic importance such as the South China Sea. These moves have reminded neighbors that they are not sure what kind of player China wants to be on the world stage. This has led many Asian countries to renew demands for a strong and credible U.S. presence—both as a deterrent and as a provider of public goods like humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

By 2030, the Chinese and Indian militaries will have spent trillions of dollars upgrading their capabilities. They will have become innovators of military technology and will invest more in asymmetric capabilities such as cyber warfare. Anticipating these developments, the United States must invest in regional security frameworks, and strengthen and expand its partnerships throughout the region, in order to promote cooperation and raise the cost to states of resorting to violence.

The United States must consider its long-term security presence in the Asia Pacific and take stock of its allies, new partners, technology, and available resources. New paradigms will need to be embraced and tested. The necessary ingredient for all of this work will be a much more fundamental, detailed, and sustained understanding of the political, geostrategic, and economic realities of a rapidly changing Asia.

People and Innovation

At the core of a successful vision for a U.S.-ASEAN relationship are people and their ideas. By 2030, the United States will have gone through five more presidential elections. The monolithic Asian leaders of the Cold War era will have been gone for two generations, and on both sides of the Pacific, personal memories of the United States’ role in twentieth-century Asian wars will be the exception. In other words, a generation of U.S. leaders and their Asian colleagues who placed their lives in each other’s hands in wartime and built the U.S.-Asia relationship from the ground up in peacetime will be gone or long retired.

Because of this, the United States must invest in the future now by institutionalizing engagement in ASEAN and Asia at large. What is needed is not a pivot toward Asia, but a basic and inclusive realignment of U.S. thinking toward the region based on a clear-eyed assessment of national interests. There should be no question, for example, that the president will attend the East Asia Summit every year to meet the 17 other leaders of Asia-Pacific countries. Americans need to hear from their leaders why Asia is important—why Asia matters to their economic livelihoods, safety, and future way of life.

By 2030, a strong U.S.-ASEAN relationship will be based on a deep and comprehensive economic engagement that includes China, India, and the other large Asian economies. It will demand a security model that is based not on the United States’ unilateral leadership, but rather on strong, viable, and collaborative relationships in which all important powers in the region have equity and responsibility for regional security and the provision of public goods.

It may be difficult to visualize that relationship today because we cannot see into an opaque Chinese military or fully know what it wants to achieve. But the Chinese people and their neighbors, along with the United States, have every interest in bringing those military leaders into the room, giving them a seat at the table, and ensuring there is at least a clear understanding of what China wants.

By 2030, a new group of leaders will define the U.S.-ASEAN relationship. They will need vision, creativity, and innovative ideas. People around the Asia Pacific will have much more information about, and access to, one another. U.S. leaders in 2030 will need to know and understand Asia, and be able and willing to explain why the region, especially our friends and allies in ASEAN, is vital to our country.

Ernest Z. Bower is senior adviser and director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.






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