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ASEAN-US Relations: Challenges

Goh Chok Tong

Goh Chok Tong

Speech by Goh Chok Tong, Prime Minister of Singapore.

New York
September 7, 2000

Ladies and Gentlemen

Asia is not a new frontier for America. US contacts with Asia go back a long way. For example, the historical connection of the US with Asia is vividly portrayed in Commodore Perry's sailing into Tokugawa, Japan, in 1853. In Southeast Asia, more than a century ago, the US went into the Philippines when Spain ceded the islands.

US engagement with Asia was most painfully felt in the last half century, when America went to war in Asia thrice - the Pacific War, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. The US committed enormous resources and lives to contain aggression in the region.

These wars embedded US strategic and economic interests in Asia. After the Second World War, the US stayed and helped in the region's reconstruction. Japan, for example, rose from the ashes of war to become an economic giant, in large measure because of America's pro-trade policies and investments. Throughout Southeast Asia, the US pressed the European colonialists to dismantle their empires. Colonies became nations. America's presence contained regional rivalry and tension during the period of decolonisation.

The US was a reassuring and stabilising force. If the US had remained isolationist, the region might be very different today.

In 1967, when ASEAN was established, Southeast Asia was a turbulent place.

In continental Southeast Asia, the US fought to contain the spread of communism in Indochina. For a decade from 1965 to 1975, the US held the line in Indochina. Had the US not done so, the communist threat from the north would have cast a cloud of uncertainty on an already unstable region. The conditions would not have been conducive for ASEAN's growth.

The US involvement in Vietnam bought precious time for the ASEAN countries to put their house in order and to lay the foundation for the grouping to develop into a cohesive organisation. ASEAN economies began to take off, spurred by US investments and a friendly American market.

However, a younger generation often forgets the facts of history, especially in a unipolar world where US dominance is often resented. The strategic importance of past US engagement with the region has therefore to be reiterated. The US presence has been a determining reason for the peace and stability Asia enjoys today. It has helped turn an unstable region of tension and strife into a booming and dynamic Southeast Asia.