Goh Chok Tong
ASEAN-US Relations: US Perspective
From the perspective of the United States, ASEAN's stability and prosperity have served its interests well.
ASEAN is relevant to the US for strategic reasons. For example, ASEAN remains useful through its ability to shepherd regional processes like the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). The ARF also provides a natural forum for the US to engage other major players in the region through a regional security framework.
The strong, dynamic economies that the US helped foster in ASEAN have also allowed the US to reap significant economic dividends. ASEAN is America's fourth largest trading partner, after Canada, Mexico and Japan. Total trade between the US and ASEAN is now almost 20% of its trade with Asia, and bigger than its trade with China.
Equally important, ASEAN's commitment to free trade has helped reinforce US interests in preserving an open multilateral trading system. Through AFTA (ASEAN Free Trade Area) and other initiatives, ASEAN has also spurred regional economic liberalisation.
But US interest in ASEAN could weaken.
First, the Asian financial crisis has dented ASEAN's credibility and standing. ASEAN's current difficulties and perceived lack of political cohesiveness and vision risk diminishing its relevance in the eyes of US policy makers.
Second, throughout most of the later half of the 20th century, the US and its allies generally subordinated potential economic and other conflicts within the alliance to the overriding interest of political and security cooperation. With the end of the Cold War, however, the national priorities of the US and its allies have changed. It seems that greater attention is now accorded to domestic interests. Demands and pressures of domestic lobbies and specific interest groups are growing. Human rights, the environment and humanitarian interests are now active players in the US foreign policy process. These have complicated US relations with some countries in Asia, and distracted the US from its longer-term strategic interests in engaging Asia. Politics in an election year will confound and obscure these interests even more.
Third, US attention in Asia today is more focussed on Northeast Asia, where its fundamental interests are at stake and more pressing. In fact, the single most important relationship underpinning stability in Asia today is the triangular US-China-Japan relationship. In this relationship, managing US-China relations is a top priority for the US. The cross-strait issue is the nub of it. The rise of China and its impact on Japanese calculations of its interests will complicate US-Japan relations. So will Japan's legitimate aspirations to play a greater leadership role in the region.
North Korea is also a key concern for the US. Initially, it was to contain North Korea's missile programme. Now, the long-term preoccupation will be to manage North Korea's opening up and the resultant effect of the thawing North-South relations on US military presence in South Korea and Japan.
All these developments in Northeast Asia will take up much of US attention, at the expense of its engagement with ASEAN.