ASEAN and the U.S. Agenda in Asia

With the onset of the “war on terror” and the increasing political and economic importance of ASEAN to the whole of Asia and the Pacific, the U.S. appears to be out to increasingly use the organization as a region-wide mechanism for meeting its objectives in the sub-region and beyond

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Southeast Asia is essential to the United States (U.S.) for securing its geopolitical and economic interests not only in East Asia and the Pacific but beyond to South Asia, Central Asia and even West Asia (or the Middle East). A sustained American military presence in the region is indispensable; an economic presence is likewise vital, both for the regional alliances that they underpin and the super profits that they directly generate.

These interests are what motivate the U.S.’ engagement in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The grouping itself was created by the U.S. as a Cold War line of defense.

A loose and non-binding organization

The U.S. formed ASEAN in the late 1960s as a bulwark against the expansion of communism from China, North Korea and Indochina. The immediate threat that needed to be hemmed in at the time was seen as coming from Vietnam even as there were other countries with revolutionary movements at varying stages of development. ASEAN founding documents were nominally about economic concerns but its practice was mainly in geo-political and diplomatic matters.

The ASEAN had just five members when it was founded in 1967: Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore. Brunei Darussalam was admitted in 1984, Vietnam in 1995, Laos and Myanmar in 1997, and then Cambodia in 1999– thus including all the major countries of Southeast Asia.

None of ASEAN’s members can be said to be a global economic power and no single member-country or group of countries can assert a generally acknowledged leadership role. These factors combine to define the organization’s character so far as a loose and non-binding organization whose members are able to preserve their individual prerogatives.

This loose character makes ASEAN hard-pressed to deal decisively with sensitive and potentially divisive internal issues. It also does not have a record of taking unified positions in larger forums like the World Trade Organization, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation or in United Nations Millennium Summits. To date, the ASEAN does not yet even have observer status in the UN and indeed is the only regional grouping in the world still without such status.

Since none of the ASEAN countries are major military powers and because individually and collectively, their most important economic partners are not the organization’s members, ASEAN is consequently unable to substantially define a “regional” agenda autonomous of external First World interests. Indeed, the major direction of ASEAN today– as embodied in the targeted ASEAN Community by 2020– is conspicuously framed in terms of building closer security and economic links with non-ASEAN powers.

The U.S. in Southeast Asia

The U.S.’s main strategic objectives in Southeast Asia are to:

* Ensure its dominance in the sub-region and use this for developing and maintaining its hegemony over the rest of Asia, including competing with other major East Asian powers especially Japan and emerging China.

* Preserve its free access to, if not outright control of, the major sea lanes from the Persian Gulf/Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean: the strategic Malacca, Sunda, Lombok, and Makassar Straits as well as the South China Sea. These sea routes transiting Southeast Asia are vital for global seaborne commerce– reportedly accounting for more than half of the world’s annual merchant shipping traffic with trade and energy shipments worth some $1.5 trillion– and for U.S. military “force projection” in the Indian Ocean to as far away as West Asia.

* Create, deepen and expand trade and investment opportunities. The U.S. here directly competes with Japan, Europe and to a much lesser degree China. Although manufacturing is a key area, the U.S.’ main thrust is currently in opening up neocolonial financial and service sectors.

These three objectives underpin all of the U.S.’ bilateral and regional level maneuvering in Southeast Asia. The U.S. has aggressively pursued these for decades through, and also outside, ASEAN. It has achieved its military objectives through its important control over individual countries such as the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore and others. It has also attained its economic objectives through the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, through bilateral economic pressure and arrangements, and multilaterally through the World Trade Organization.

With the onset of the “war on terror” and the increasing political and economic importance of ASEAN to the whole of Asia and the Pacific, the U.S. appears to be increasingly using the organization as a region-wide mechanism for meeting its objectives in the sub-region and beyond.

The overall U.S. approach is to elevate its bilateral military relations to a more assertive region-wide level as possible and as necessary. The foundations are military exercises, both with individual countries such as Balikatan in the Philippines and Cobra Gold in Thailand, and with coordinated sets of sequential bilateral exercises–the biggest of which so far is the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) exercise of the U.S. Pacific Fleet with the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. At the regional level the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) has its umbrella security network Exercise Team Challenge (ETC) which is moreover used to coordinate with the militaries of Australia and New Zealand.

The U.S. has also become the dominant economic power in the region. In the last five to six years it has overtaken Japan as the region’s biggest source of foreign direct investment (FDI). Total U.S. FDI in the region over the period 1995-2003 sums to $35.7 billion or 16.3 percent of total FDI in Southeast Asia– followed by Japan ($28 billion or 12.7 percent of the total) and the UK ($25.8 billion, 11.7 percent).

The U.S. is also ASEAN’s largest trading partner where, at $1.2 trillion over the decade 1995-2004, it accounted for 14.7 percent of total ASEAN two-way trade (i.e. import and export) outside Southeast Asia.

All these investments have been in the service of creating a First World-dominated region-wide production base through dispersed industrial enclaves or so-called export processing zones. American, Japanese and European transnational corporations (TNCs) have taken advantage of economic globalization to fragment their production processes across Southeast Asia and set up firms and domestic enterprises in the form of subsidiaries, affiliates and subcontractors.

Hosting the 12th ASEAN Summit: A loyal client

It is significant that the upcoming 12th ASEAN Summit is hosted by the Philippine government which has, under President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, proven that it is the U.S.’ most loyal client state in the region. Since the chair largely decides on the agenda, it may be expected that U.S. interests will be clearly reflected. The exact agenda of the December Summit will become clearer as it approaches although there are already indications of what it will contain.

Consistent with the U.S. “war on terror” theme, the Philippines is pushing to complete an ASEAN Convention on Counter-Terrorism. It has also drafted a document that proposes ASEAN engagement with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The SCO is a six-country military alliance founded in 2001 that specifically excludes the U.S. and implicitly challenges its hegemony particularly in Central Asia. It includes Russia, China and the Central Asian Republics of the former Soviet Union (Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan) with Pakistan, India, Mongolia and Iran as observers. The proposed ASEAN “engagement” is then potentially a backdoor for the U.S. into the SCO through its proxies such as the Philippines.

Also on the agenda are the approval of a “blueprint” for the proposed ASEAN Charter and the creation of a drafting committee for this towards completion in time for the 13th Summit in Singapore in December 2007. The proposed ASEAN Charter aims, among others, to tighten organizational structures and establish more formal decision-making processes which would facilitate the implementation of region-wide interventions.

The Philippines is also pushing to discuss energy security including opening up access to the region’s oil and liquefied natural gas resources; Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines are known to have rich oil and gas reserves. Other items on the agenda, within the framework of the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community, are an ASEAN Declaration on the Rights of Migrant Workers and an ASEAN Declaration on HIV/AIDS.

All these initiatives make it clear what the essential agenda of the 12th Summit is: to increase U.S. military presence and to deepen neoliberal globalization in Southeast Asia. With reports from Joseph Yu, IBON Features/ Posted by (

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