Is America turning a new leaf in Southeast Asia? — Kevin HR Villanueva
JUNE 1 — Southeast Asia has tussled continually with the two faces of US foreign policy — from the time the US propped up authoritarian regimes in the 1970s, and until the 1990s when the Clinton administration came out loud and clear on human rights and democracy promotion.
Last week, the first Asean-US Eminent Persons Group (EPG) Meeting came to a close in Manila, marking 25 years of formal dialogue between the partners.
This high-level gathering of top diplomats, intellectuals and business entrepreneurs picked up from where the Asean-US Leaders’ Meeting left of in November 2011 and laid the groundwork for the fourth Asean-US Leaders’ Meeting in Cambodia later this year. The Asean-US Dialogue and Leaders Meeting is a fresh opportunity for the two parties to take history onto their side.
For the US, the fact that their exports to Asean rose by 23.3 per cent, totalling US$100.5 billion (RM301.5 billion) in 2010, and that they are each other’s fourth largest trading partner, to a sum total of US$186.1 billion also in 2010, should be more than an incentive to keep their markets alive in the region.
Asean is not only a good neighbour to China, it is a neighbourhood all unto itself and represents a vast repository of natural, cultural and intellectual wealth.
For the 10 member states of Asean and their array of emerging economies and democratic institutions, the US can prove to be the timely ally. It is the foil to Leninist-style capitalism and one albeit flawed model of liberal democracy to which countries at the very least can gauge themselves on the road to national development.
So if former US ambassador to Singapore, Stapleton Roy, who is a member of the EPG, claims that this US “comeback” in Southeast Asia is not about “containing” China, then it ought be, in my view, about building Asean. To understand how to draw the lines for the future of Asean-US relations, one has got to look at the mouse print, which means following through some of the most strategic agreements that are on the table, and not just the hyped-about trade and commercial benefits.
First, Asean government entities ought to be forthright not only in imitating but owning technical know-how that can help them push for more free flow of goods, people and capital by 2015.
The US-Asean Connectivity Cooperation Initiative that came out of the November 2011 meeting should now be supporting activities that allow Asean business enterprises to observe the manufacture and demonstration of US goods and services in the energy, transportation, and information and communication technology sectors.
Indonesia, with its online social habits, and the Philippines, which pioneered the “text” revolution in 2001, are sterling examples of what we stand to gain if we narrow the digital divide. Second, thousands of lives have been lost and numbers more have been threatened by floods, storms, earthquakes and landslides, especially in the last decade in Southeast Asia. The US has agreed to support the Asean implementation of an all hazard disaster monitoring and response system.
This will only go far if the proposed Rapid Disaster Response Agreement to create a legal and procedural framework for accelerating deployment and acceptance of assistance personnel, supplies and services proposed by US President Barack Obama in 2011 goes full swing.
Both parties must then move fast in sharing best practices in areas such risk assessment; early warning; monitoring, prevention and mitigation; disaster preparedness and responses to ease regional setbacks in the wake of natural calamities.
Finally, Asean and the US can go even further by strengthening the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, which is the overarching human body for the regional organization.
The country representatives call the attention of the heads of states to pressing regional problems that endanger the peoples of Asean and are creating regional human rights instruments that will combat human trafficking, the inhuman work conditions of migrants and the abuse of women and children, to name just a few.
They will eventually need a secretariat and a steady stream of funding to undertake thematic studies and provide the framework for conventions on rights more specific to the region. The birth of this institution is a clear example of how influential the West has been in Southeast Asia.
The US can now do the wider world a bigger favour if it can help it grow because this institution safeguards the values and principles under which international cooperation can make profound and lasting changes. — The Jakarta Post
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.
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