Engaging ASEAN, One Step at a Time

Engaging ASEAN, One Step at a Time

In a move hailed by Southeast Asian heads of state and ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan, the U.S. Senate April 9 confirmed Scot Marciel as the first U.S. ambassador for ASEAN affairs. The move comes at a key time in the development of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as an institution, after the organization adopted a landmark charter in November 2007 that, among other things, obliges member countries to appoint permanent, senior representatives to the ASEAN secretariat in Jakarta. The appointment of Marciel is a significant gesture, making the United States the first ASEAN partner country to create such a position. It also arrives on the heels of a significant U.S. pledge in February to help ASEAN's organizational evolution and suggests that the United States has recognized the importance of high-level, proactive U.S. policy toward ASEAN.

This new attention is overdue. The United States has paid little notice to Southeast Asia in recent years due to more pressing concerns in the Middle East and South Asia, and with its scant attention to East Asia focused on China. During this time, the United States has gradually ceded its predominant influence in Southeast Asia as a rising China, reassertive Japan, and emerging India have moved in to become major regional players alongside it.

Much of the success of China, Japan, and India in gaining influence in Southeast Asia has come because they understand the importance the region ascribes to engaging in multilateral fora. In contrast, the United States' limited attention to Southeast Asia has been focused on a web of bilateral partnerships and it has been noticeably absent in multilateral diplomacy. Indeed, Washington has been frustrated and impatient with the region's many "talk shops," and the attendance of U.S. presidents and secretaries of state at regional meetings and summits has been rare in recent years. Southeast Asians have taken this as a sign of disengagement, disinterest, and even disrespect from the United States. The U.S. unwillingness to sign ASEAN's Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, tardiness in designating a U.S. ambassador for ASEAN affairs, apparent disinterest in participating in the nascent East Asian summit process, and failure to hold a U.S.-ASEAN summit meeting further reflects American ambivalence towards the ASEAN process.

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