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Turning the US-ASEAN strategic partnership into a lasting one

When Mr Barack Obama hands over the United States presidency to his successor on Jan 20 next year, he will leave behind, among other achievements, the legacy of elevating the relationship between the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the US. No other US President in history has attached as much importance to ASEAN as Mr Obama has.

When Mr Barack Obama hands over the United States presidency to his successor on Jan 20 next year, he will leave behind, among other achievements, the legacy of elevating the relationship between the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the US. No other US President in history has attached as much importance to ASEAN as Mr Obama has.

However, there are lingering concerns in the region that America’s rebalancing strategy to the region may not survive beyond the Obama administration. Will South-east Asia continue to arouse as much interest from the White House’s new occupant in the coming years?

Washington’s short attention span on ASEAN has been a perennial concern. But this perception may soon be a thing of the past for two reasons.

First, ASEAN is no longer at the periphery of US national interest. Washington cannot afford to “deprioritise” ASEAN since doing so will cede strategic ground to China and thereby give Beijing a freer hand to expand its influence in the region at the expense of the US.

Second, ASEAN is an efficient and cost-effective means of engaging South-east Asia, and cultivating ASEAN gives Washington leverage and policy options in the larger context of East Asian geopolitics.

The incoming US President will thus find that engaging ASEAN first and foremost serves the US national interest.

In the near term, ASEAN’s concerns vis-a-vis the US revolve less around Washington’s strategic endurance and more towards the quality of its engagement. To be sure, the US plays a pivotal role in the region’s economy and security. It is ASEAN’s fourth-largest trade partner, but its growth rate is the lowest among ASEAN’s top five trade partners. Statistics compiled by the ASEAN Secretariat showed that from 2007-13, US trade with ASEAN grew at the average rate of 3.62 per cent, which is markedly lower than ASEAN’s other major trading partners: China (14 per cent), EU28 (6.26 per cent), Japan (5.84 per cent) and South Korea (13.4 per cent).

Another distinctive characteristic of US engagement in the region features an overwhelming concentration on the larger ASEAN economies. For example, nearly 90 per cent of US foreign direct investment are located in six ASEAN member states. Statistics from the tourism sector showed a similar pattern of imbalance. Three in every four American tourists in 2013 opted to visit only the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

In this context, the newly unveiled US-ASEAN Connect initiative is a positive development and will harness US support across the business, energy, innovation and policy domains to bolster ASEAN integration.

When implementing this laudable initiative, the US should give due attention to ensure that Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam (CMLV) are not sidelined in favour of ASEAN’s more economically advanced states. The choice of Jakarta, Singapore and Bangkok as Connect Centers is a case in point. Adding one of the CMLV capitals to the list will serve to send the strongest political signal that the “newer” ASEAN members are just as important. This is a missed opportunity that could easily be rectified by adding a fourth Connect Center.


Engaging ASEAN should translate into meaningful outreach and partnerships with all 10 ASEAN member states instead of cherry-picking the most advantageous partners. In comparison, China’s “shotgun” approach at engaging the whole of ASEAN has positioned China as a key economic partner, and has edged ASEAN even closer to the Chinese orbit as a result.

China is also making substantive inroads into ASEAN by investing in infrastructure projects across the region. It secured a US$6 billion (S$8.41 billion) rail project in January this year that will link landlocked Laos with China, and is in negotiations with Thailand on a US$14 billion rail project.

Infrastructure financing is one battle that the US cannot win given China’s deep pockets and its strong political will to use them to further China’s economic and strategic goals. Washington will have to look to its ally — Japan — to provide ASEAN states with an alternative source of financing and developmental partner.

While the 720-word joint statement at the recent US-ASEAN Summit — dubbed the Sunnylands Declaration — did not contain a single mention on China, the shadow of the world’s second-largest economy loomed large. The three paragraphs on the South China Sea (SCS) were as much as about the freedom of navigation and rule of the law as they were about ASEAN’s growing queasiness on China’s muscle-flexing.

The alleged failure to finger-point China in the declaration above all showed a high degree of pragmatism on the part of ASEAN and the US. Calling out China will provide nothing more than short-term political gratification.

Handling the SCS issue in a measured and sensible manner preserved the strategic and diplomatic space for ASEAN and the US to continue engaging China. Notwithstanding the rhetoric on the SCS on all sides, ASEAN, the US and China realise that there is little to gain and all to lose if the disputes spiral out of control. There are clearly more common interests that unite ASEAN and the US with China than concerns that divide them.

It would be nightmarish for President Obama to transition into the final year of his presidency by stoking the Chinese fire with ASEAN in tow. The US has achieved the primary strategic goal of the Summit, which was to cement its relationship with ASEAN. Washington’s warmth towards ASEAN is roundly reciprocated across South-east Asia.

But the success of the Sunnylands Summit — and by extension, the rebalancing policy — will be short-lived if the ASEAN-US relationship remains a personal victory for Mr Obama. His legacy in elevating ASEAN-US relations can only be secured if he succeeds in depersonalising these achievements to institutionalise the strategic partnership. Otherwise, the ASEAN-US relationship will again be subjected to the vagaries of whoever sits in the White House as well as a Congress perpetually distracted by the noise of domestic politics.


Dr Tang Siew Mun is head of the ASEAN Studies Centre at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. The views expressed here are his own.

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