The Future Shape of U.S.-ASEAN Relations

The Future Shape of U.S.-ASEAN Relations

Amidst economic uncertainty and political excitement, academics and diplomats converged in Washington last week to discuss the future direction of the United States' Southeast Asia strategy. Their assessments, along with broader regional developments, highlight the key challenges, shifts and continuities that will drive the next administration's policy toward the region.

Most of the conference participants agreed that the absence of a serious conventional threat meant that Southeast Asia's challenges and flash points will continue to remain internal, such as insurgency, abrupt political transitions and economic volatility. Thus, on the security front, Washington must build on its successes in assisting its friends and allies -- such as Indonesia and the Philippines -- without stoking nationalist sentiments. In Manila for instance, the U.S. has recently been accused of using its assistance to the Philippine military to interfere in other internal struggles.

Economically, Singapore Ambassador to the United States Chan Heng Chee told the conference that the U.S. must not surrender to protectionism despite its current financial turmoil, and should continue its pursuit of free trade and economic integration. Politically, Washington must ensure that political transitions, such as the ones currently unfolding in Thailand and Malaysia, are managed with sensitivity to sovereignty but without undermining democracy as an enduring tenet of U.S. foreign policy. In this regard, Burma will probably continue to be a sporadic irritant in U.S.-ASEAN affairs.

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