Approaching ASEAN

3 12 2009

by Jared McClelland

Before I get into the real meat of what this post is actually about, I want to comment briefly on media coverage in general of Obama’s trip to Asia. James Fallows has already done more justice to this topic than I could and if you don’t follow him regularly I would encourage you to at least go back over the ten or so entire he’s written on this subject. The only thing I would add is this: the deplorable media coverage is a symptom of a disturbing media trend to cover every thing from the perspective of domestic electoral politics. When a sitting President travels abroad, it shouldn’t matter what his party affiliation is; what should matter is what he accomplishes while there. In talking about the bow to Japan’s emperor last time I focused on the right-wing blog coverage that – rightly or wrongly – criticized the bow on its merits, but in a quick review of the mainstream media coverage, most of it seemed to be along the lines of “Obama bows to Japanese emperor – what does it mean for mid-term elections?” That, I submit to you, is an incredibly dumb way to cover foreign affairs. The really right question is, “What does it mean for our relationship with Japan?” or even “Does it somehow compromise our nation’s position?” which I would reiterate is frankly stupid, but at least it addresses the situation on its merits instead of its campaign implications.

In that spirit, I am slightly reluctant to address the following and risk adding to the overblown and nearsighted criticism of what I see as a relatively successful trip through Asia. So let’s not call it a criticism. Let’s call it something to think about for next time.

After taking the time and trouble to get to Asia, I would have liked to have seen Obama pay a trip to Indonesia while he was here. Indonesia is a pretty unique place, and has the promise to be very interesting and important in the continued rise of Asia. It is the world’s fourth most populous country behind China, India, and the U.S., which alone affords it huge economic potential and political importance. It’s economy has exploded in the past decade and still holds promise. It is also a Muslim nation, the world’s largest, and a democracy. More than that, it had a largely peaceful democratic transition which has proven stable and lasting. It’s my view that developing closer ties with Indonesia could provide several benefits to America, first and foremost being to counteract the notion (unfortunately widespread among the Islamic world) that America is at war with Islam. If we could show, through a close relationship with a large Muslim democracy, that we not only tolerate but indeed support strong, independent, self-governing Muslim nations we might go some distance to correcting our damaged image with regard to islam. Indonesia already occupies an important place in the world because it daily disproves the notion (unfortunately widespread in the West) that Islam and democracy are incompatible. Furthermore, a strong relationship with Indonesia could pay dividends in Asia for many years to come.

The Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN, from here on out) has largely been ignored by the United States up until now, and not without good reason. Their response to the Asian financial crisis of 1997 and their delayed earthquake response in 1995, not to mention their total unwillingness to apply pressure for democratization to Mayanmar have shown the organization to be weak and somewhat directionless. The so-called “ASEAN way,” the organization’s MO based on personal agreements, back-room bilateral deals, and seemingly endless negotiation are difficult for the Western world to take seriously. We are much more confident in a ‘legalistic’ approach like that of the EU, where laws are adopted by the whole body and member states are obliged to comply. However, all that being said, ASEAN is showing signs of moving towards a more ‘legalistic’ approach, the first big test of which will be the percolating free-trade agreement with China (which will also have the added effect of making ASEAN an even bigger economic power in Asia.) I expect to see some combination of the ‘ASEAN way’ and the more ‘legalistic’ approach, which will be more comfortable culturally for member states while also incorporating the more effective Western law-based approach.

Indonesia got lost in there somewhere. I said all that to say this: ASEAN has the potential to be to South East Asia what the EU is to Europe, and making an investment now in a relationship with ASEAN’s largest nation and fastest-rising economic star could provide many benefits later, especially since our relationship with other prominent ASEAN nations like Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia are – to put it mildly – fraught. And President Obama may be uniquely placed to develop this relationship since he spent part of his childhood in the country. ASEAN is also critical from a security standpoint in maintaining a stable regional balance of power with China, since it is a strategically valuable region, several of whose member states share a border with the giant to the North. (I offer the caveat, however, that for the U.S. to ever truly engage ASEAN, they’re going to have to at least try to do something about Myanmar.)

Hillary Clinton did call on Indonesia on her first trip to Asia, and that is certainly a start, and I realize that for the time being Obama had a very full schedule with several large and pressing issues to address in the region and South-East Asia very understandably took a back seat on this trip. However, I would encourage him and his administration to consider making fostering a close and productive U.S.-Indonesia relationship a priority.

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