US bilateral relations in ASEAN

Photo: Gunawan Kartapranata/CC BY-SA 3.0
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While the US has partnerships with most ASEAN member states; it needs to do more to maintain influence in the region.

By Fiona Tang

China’s economic strength has grown rapidly. It has threatened the American influence in the Southeast Asia.

ASEAN partners of the US found themselves having to maintain relations with China as well. The US needs to engage ASEAN partners without jeopardising their ties with China.

“Comprehensive partnerships” in a nutshell

The engagement with Southeast Asian states during Obama administration is a goal-driven cooperation. The cooperation is called “strategic partnerships”.

The cooperation is sometimes called “comprehensive partnerships”. The US built relationships with Indonesia in 2010, Vietnam in 2013, Malaysia in 2014, and Laos in 2016. They also established a Defence Cooperation with the Philippines and Singapore. Brunei, Cambodia and Myanmar are the only countries that have yet to forge such ties.

The US and Brunei have a good foundation to establish cooperation

Compared to Cambodia and Myanmar, Brunei and the US entered a treaty of peace and navigation in 1850. Both countries signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on Defence Cooperation in 1994. The cooperation allowed both national military to engage in bilateral defence programmes.

Brunei and the US also shared the “Open-Sky” Air Services Agreement in 1997. There are other military and trade agreements signed between both nations. In 2016, the total trade between the US and Brunei was US$628 million.  Brunei has obtained various aircrafts from the US. Hence, signing a comprehensive partnership with Brunei would be easy for the US.

Domestic conditions in Cambodia and Myanmar made partnership harder despite bilateral trade ties. Even so, Cambodia and Myanmar are members of US-led Lower Mekong Initiative programme.

Benefits of the comprehensive cooperation to the US

A comprehensive cooperation allows Washington to administer its engagement with its Asian partners. The administration could help to avoid disturbance in the US-ASEAN relations. The cooperation will protect the US-ASEAN relations from China’s rise.

The policy also works in the cultural favour between the US and Southeast Asia nations. The US and Southeast Asia countries could improve understanding on each other’s cultural values. These exchange programmes could enhance the US influence in the region.

Photo by Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons Licensing

Benefits of the comprehensive cooperation to the ASEAN nations

Southeast Asian states can share positive ties with China as well as the US through the cooperation. If the 10 states gain equal economic benefits and diplomatic ties from both powers, they will not have to take slides.

The policy brings economic development in ASEAN. An economic partnership with the US will increase investments and boost economic growth. ASEAN nations could also enjoy access to the US resources from the policy.

Obstacles the US would face

The policy is a continuation of the Obama Administration’s pivot to Asia. The support for the policy might cause resistance within the Trump Administration. Even so, President Trump has shown sentiments in continuing the foreign policy.

Due to Cambodia’s human rights violation, “comprehensive partnership” is not a short-term possibility. Despite the existing bilateral trade relations, it remains difficult for the US-Cambodia cooperation in light of domestic conditions of Cambodia.

In 2013, the US and Myanmar enjoyed an improvement in relations, but it was not enough to dismiss issues such as ethnic hostility. The partnership would be easier and achievable after Myanmar address its domestic issues.

To maintain engagement with ASEAN nations, the US has to build bilateral ties with Brunei, then Cambodia and Myanmar. US-Brunei already shares economic and defence ties; it is time to deepen the relationship.