Decisions needed: ASEAN and Asian regionalism.

Author:Porta, Alphonse F. La

Editor's Note: ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, is important to American economic and political interests in the context of a rising Asia, the author of this article maintains, and the new U.S. administration needs to upgrade and invigorate relations with it. He suggests a specific action program. --Ed.

Southeast Asia is an essential component of Asia's economic and political ascendance that broadly impacts United States interests in this increasingly integrated world. Energizing U.S. relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is essential to build healthy regionalism and advance key interests with U.S. allies and strategic partners, especially Indonesia, not to mention India and China.

The economic stake of Southeast Asia and the United States in the current global financial crisis could be as much as $1 trillion in book investment, trade, debt holdings, and portfolio investment. With a population of more than 500 million (larger than the EU), the ASEAN countries have a combined gross domestic product (GDP) of over $1 trillion. Greater ASEAN economic integration, efforts to create a single market, and trends in trade agreements favor the United States, and it is likely that freer and increased trade with the region will help to haul the United States out of the current crisis.

Yet, the promise of ASEAN regionalism remains unfulfilled. There has been inadequate synergy in the simultaneous pursuit of economic and political objectives, both within the region and on the part of some outside actors, particularly but not exclusively the United States. For the past eight years, China alone has pursued a comprehensive strategy to maximize its economic and political interests through trade and energy arrangements and "smile diplomacy," for the most part abjuring heavy-handed tactics. China is seen as an ever-present, if not essential, force in the region; in the words of one ASEAN envoy, there are "natural complementarities" in Southeast Asia's economic and other relations with the great northern power. At the same time, the ASEAN tactic of balancing China by drawing in other powers (India is the newest entrant) is likely to continue. Washington therefore has latitude to upgrade its posture in regional affairs, as well as to fashion new or improved structures to promote China's positive behavior.

Although ASEAN sees itself as the core of all Asian groupings, complementarity does yet exist in Northeast Asia...

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