U.S. Ambassadors: Southeast Asia Fertile Ground for Exports

David L. Carden, the first resident U.S. Ambassador to ASEAN, makes the case for greater U.S. trade with SE Asia as Daniel Shields, ambassador to Brunei Darussalam, and Scot Marciel, ambassador to Indonesia, look on. (Asia Society Texas Center)

HOUSTON, June 3, 2011 — America is "wildly underperforming" as an export country, says David I. Adelman , U.S. ambassador to Singapore. "Fewer than 1 percent of American businesses have ever exported anything, anywhere."

But opportunities to change that abound in Southeast Asia.

That was the message Adelman and three fellow U.S. ambassadors to ASEAN countries delivered in Houston, when they spoke at an Asia Society Texas Center luncheon as part of the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council’s 2011 Ambassadors Tour.

Joining Adelman on the panel talk were ambassadors Daniel Shields (Brunei Darussalam), Scot Marciel (Indonesia), and David L. Carden (first resident U.S. ambassador to ASEAN), and Alexander Feldman, president of the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council.

Feldman described ASEAN countries as "America's hidden market."

"Everyone talks about China and India, but Southeast Asia is an incredibly important region for America, not only geopolitically but also economically," he said. Currently it is this country's fourth largest export market.

Shields said Brunei's government would welcome greater involvement by Houston energy companies in Brunei's already robust oil and gas sector. He also said more Brunei students should be encouraged to study in the United States.

Marciel praised Indonesia's remarkable democratic transformation in recent decades and its tolerant brand of Islam. Economically, he said, the sprawling nation of 235 million "is a tale of two countries." While enjoying a 6.5 percent annual growth rate, Indonesia is burdened by a "somewhat difficult bureaucracy" that can make doing business there a challenge, he said.

The larger theme of increasing U.S. exports worldwide dominated Adelman's talk. He noted that 70 percent of global purchasing power lies outside the United States. Yet only 11 percent of U.S. gross domestic product is made up of exports, he said, compared to 47 percent of Germany’s.

The good news, he said, is that U.S. exports to Asia are up more