Six Asean secrets Trump should know
New US President Donald Trump must be “fantastically” happy with a “wonderful” Asean because it is the only “great” regional organization that has no military might and has not been at war. The problem is, he might not know about the grouping at all.
Here is a 6-point dossier on the 50-year-old Asean and its top secrets.
First, Asean is not too weak and is not too strong as a regional organization. It was established in 1967 out of a desire to prevent conflicts and wars and to promote peace and stability.
After three days of “sport-shirt” diplomacy in Bang Saen in August five decades ago, as former Philippine President Fidel V. Ramos described it, the foreign ministers from the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore signed the Bangkok Declaration.
This 752-word document, excluding their long names, has saved the region from the scourges of many potential wars.
Second, Asean members talk a lot among themselves. Outsiders often describe the regional grouping as a talk shop.
Indeed, it is. But that is nothing to be ashamed of. Those talks have not been in vain as they have effectively prevented wars and promoted cooperation.
There would be fewer talks in the future, meaning fewer meetings, if the current Asean chair, the Philippines, has its way.
On an average day, at least two or three meetings are being held. That makes it approximately 1,200 annually.
Last year, Laos cut it down to less than 1,000 meetings.
It is an open secret that sometimes when Asean members agree, they do so not because they thought it was the best solution but, rather, it was the lowest denominator that all members would accept.
Third, Asean has a longstanding tradition: It does not promise what it cannot deliver.
It is a bit different from Trump’s style of leadership, which is: Say it out loud first and then follow up on those promises.
In Asean, action speaks louder than words. That is the reason the regional grouping has so many action plans. For the Asean Vision 2025, a total of 571 action plans have been identified for the next 10 years.
That explains why Asean goes slow before any decision is reached.
Fourth, Asean is not a military alliance akin to Nato, or the Northern Atlantic Treaty Organization.
So, Asean is not taking any advantage of the United States, and it is an important US strategic partner—a pillar of the US rebalancing policy. It is not a military burden to the advance of American greatness, nor does it pose any threat to the United States.
Fifth, Asean is good for Trump’s America, as it has created jobs both in blue and red states. US trade with Asean has already created 500,000 jobs for American people.
Asean is the fourth largest trade partner of the United States, worth about $226 billion in 2015. And American companies are the biggest beneficiaries of the grouping’s prosperity and modern lifestyle.
More and more American companies want to invest in Asean, not stay away. In 2014, they pumped in nearly $25 billion.
With the economies of new Asean members such as Vietnam and Myanmar growing, investment opportunity will be augmented even more.
As a grouping, Asean is Asia’s third largest economy after China and Japan, and the seventh largest in the world with a combined GDP of US$2.4 trillion.
Sixth, each year Asean hosts one of the world’s most important leader-only security forums, known as the East Asia Summit (EAS).
Leaders from Asean and its dialogue partners, including the United States, China, Russia, Japan and India, will go to the capital of the Asean chair to forge common positions on critical global issues such as epidemics, terrorism and climate change.
If Trump decides not to attend the EAS at Clark Air Base (he can easily find an excuse given his caliber) during his first year of presidency, it would be a big loss to US security interests.
Other participants are eager as always to inject their ideas and energy into the emerging security framework.
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Kavi Chongkittavorn is a former assistant group editor of Nation Media Group, in Thailand.
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