Advance US Interests by Making ASEAN More Relevant, Scholar Says

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:16 PM EDT

( - The United States should work with governments in South-East Asia to change the membership of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) to exclude Burma and incorporate Australia, says a U.S. scholar and regional expert.

Arguing that the U.S. still needs ASEAN despite the grouping's flaws, Dana Dillon of the Heritage Foundation's Asian Studies Center said Washington should take steps to rebuild ASEAN's relevance and "advance American interests in the region."

ASEAN held a meeting last week in Laos, followed by an annual gathering of the region's only security body, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), comprising the 10 ASEAN members and 15 other nations with interests in the Asia-Pacific.

For the first time in 21 years, the U.S. did not send its top diplomat to the ARF meeting, citing scheduling clashes. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick attended instead.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's stayaway was widely seen as signaling Washington's unhappiness with Burma, which had been scheduled to assume ASEAN's rotating chair next year. Under pressure from its ASEAN partners, Burma's ruling junta announced during the meeting that it would forgo the chairmanship for now.

Dillon attributed ASEAN's problems in part to the fact that when its original six members decided to expand membership in the 1990s, they "failed to set any pre-conditions for new membership other than race and geography."

Among the newcomers -- Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam -- "only Vietnam has exceeded expectations and become a valuable asset to the organization," he said.

"Burma, on the other hand, has dissolved into a security, economic and political nightmare, dragging ASEAN through crisis after crisis and threatening to make ASEAN an international pariah."

Dillon said Burma's decision to pass up the chairmanship only pushed the problem down the road. It remained "an enormous liability to the organization."

At the same time, he argued that Australia should be invited to join.

"Like Burma, Australia is firmly located in South-East Asia with no plans to move. Unlike Burma, Australia has an open market economy, the rule of law and a stable government untarnished by brutal repression and universal condemnation."

Other steps he said the U.S. should take included promoting democracy in the region and negotiating a free trade agreement with ASEAN that would "more deeply integrate the regional economies and advance the U.S. trade agenda in the region."

Explaining why ASEAN was important for the U.S., Dillon noted that 500 million people live in the region, which lies adjacent to some of the world's busiest sea lanes.

ASEAN members are also major trading partners with the U.S. and include two treaty allies -- Thailand and the Philippines -- as well as Singapore, an important non-allied defense partner.

"It would be in America's best interest if ASEAN were politically, economically and militarily strong enough to deter China's creeping hegemony, thus taking South-East Asia off the map of Sino-American competition -- similar to the role it played in the Cold War," he said.

At a post-meeting press conference, Zoellick said the U.S. considered South-East Asian countries to be "very good partners" and cited the importance of trade and maritime security in the region's crucial waterways.

Zoellick also announced the beginning of negotiations for a "U.S.-ASEAN Enhanced Partnership," suggesting that this include an action plan to achieve a common vision on economic, political and security issues.

ASEAN comprises Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore, Vietnam, Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Brunei.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow