What would a President Hillary Clinton do with ASEAN?

Hillary Clinton, in a 2012 visit to the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta, where she again called on ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan. ASEAN Secretariat

By Loke Hoe Yeong

The US presidential election continues to look like one of the least predictable ones in history. Ted Cruz appears to be closing up his gap with Donald Trump for the Republican nomination, while Bernie Sanders has recently won the Wyoming caucus, his seventh victory in a row in the primary season for the Democrats. Nonetheless, for a whole host of reasons and assumptions, the sense at the moment is still that Hillary Clinton will take the presidential oath of office in January 2017.

So how would US-ASEAN relations turn out under a President Hillary Clinton?

Mrs Clinton has perhaps been the US Secretary of State most involved and familiar with ASEAN. She visited the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta, the first US Secretary of State to do so, calling on ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan. Moreover, she did so on her maiden overseas trip as Secretary of State.

Indeed, Clinton has been a “Secretary of State fluent in ASEAN” – not only in her familiarity with the multiplicity of acronyms of various forums and programmes in ASEAN-speak. Under her watch, the US signed ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, which paved the way for the US eventually to join the East Asia Summit (EAS).

Admirably, Clinton had also attended many ASEAN related summits that involve the US, such as crucially the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the only forum that deals with Asia-wide security, and which also involves North Korea.

During her tenure, the US also became the first non-ASEAN country to establish a dedicated mission to ASEAN in Jakarta.

Why did ASEAN matter for Secretary Clinton?

Much of this of course had to do with the Obama administration’s ‘pivot to Asia’. ASEAN, as the neutral entity beholden to no great power, was always the natural vehicle for the US to build up its relationships in Asia from, without wrong-footing the delicate web of relations within Asia.

ASEAN, with its related key forums like ASEAN Plus Three that involve China, Japan and South Korea, has the confidence of the countries in Asia as the coalescing polity of choice.

If the US got too close to an Asian country like Japan – above and beyond what its alliance with the US would have called for – or India, it would have invited the suspicion of China – and vice versa.

At the country level within ASEAN, of particular interest to her was Myanmar. She juggled differing interests – in managing the détente with Myanmar, in coaxing the country’s military rulers to move forward with its path of democratisation, while continuing to press on human rights issues. She became the first US Secretary of State to visit the country since 1955. There she met Aung San Suu Kyi, and paved the way for President Barack Obama himself to make a landmark visit to Myanmar.

It was also under watch, though, that the US began to refer to that country as Myanmar, finally dropping its long held practice of calling it “Burma”.

Distractions, and more pressing issues elsewhere

Things never go perfectly as planned in the real world of course. Along the way, the US lost its focus on Asia and ASEAN, given world events that were beyond its control.

The Arab Spring broke out in 2011, which shifted US attention towards Egypt, followed by Libya, and then Syria, the civil war of which continues to occupy American attention to date, along with the threat of the so called Islamic State. There was also the 2014 revolution in Ukraine, which brought the US on a collision course with Russia.

The US was to recalibrate expectations of its foreign policy on Asia, beginning by rechristening the “pivot to Asia” as the “rebalancing”. It remains to be seen whether a President Hillary Clinton – and the fate afforded by world events – will allow for US-ASEAN relations to grow further.