Tuesday 23 October 2012

Asean's growing ties with US, now and in future

In an address to the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce & Industry (SCCCI) last Friday, Singapore's former ambassador to the US, Professor Chan Heng Chee, spoke of the good relations between Asean and the US. This is an edited transcript.
Published The Straits Times, 22 Oct 2012

THE buzz about the United States "pivot" or "rebalance" to Asia at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation last year may have given the region a sense that great and unprecedented attention has been cast on the Asia-Pacific. In fact, the word pivot is no longer used as it was pointed out that it has the connotation that you swing completely around, away from something. The US has been very focused on Iraq and on Afghanistan, but we know it is unlikely it can turn its back to problems in the Middle East or on West Asia. Nor is "return to Asia" an apt term, because the US has never left Asia. Rebalance is the word preferred by the White House. The pivot or rebalance has been seen by some as more a pivot to South-east Asia, or giving more weight to Southeast Asia, since the US has always had to deal with major issues from North-east Asia.

Asean receives attention from the White House and senior members in the State Department, Treasury and Defence when a crisis emerges, that is, if the region becomes a white-heat issue. You will recall the US was very engaged with South-east Asia when Vietnam invaded Cambodia in December 1978 and for 10 years, Asean, the US and China worked together to get Vietnam, supported by its sponsor the Soviet Union, out of Cambodia.

This happened again in 1997 during the Clinton administration when the Asian financial crisis erupted and Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia found their currencies collapsing. Interestingly at first, the US Treasury did not respond to Thailand's call for help. It was only after the contagion hitting Malaysia spread to a third country, Indonesia, that the US sprang into action. It noted that the Korean won was in deep trouble, and was also caught up in the political transition to the post-Suharto era, which was initially accompanied by violence.

A few months after Mr George W. Bush took office, two planes flew into the World Trade Center in New York on Sept 11, 2001, and an Al-Qaeda plot was uncovered targeting the US. Asean came on to the US radar screen. If you recall, Singapore uncovered at the time an Al-Qaeda cell and the Jemaah Islamiah (JI), which were targeting to blow up the American, British and Australian embassies, and the Ministry of Defence at Bukit Gombak. The JI had a network which covered Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Indonesia.

The Bush administration paid a great deal of attention to Asean and stepped up its engagement with the region, though some countries felt the focus was too much on counter-terrorism. We often had high-level officials visiting Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and the Philippines.

But if the political interest was episodic rather than a constant high, US engagement with Asean came continually through American business and industry. Asean is one of the most important markets for the US. Today, Asean is America's fifth-largest trading partner after the European Union, Canada, China and Mexico, just marginally ahead of Japan. Total trade is at US$198 billion (S$240.7 billion). Between 2002 and last year, roughly the last decade, total trade between the US and Asean grew 80 per cent.

On investments, the US has nearly three times the investments in Asean than it has in China and more than nine times the investment it has in India. In fact, US business has been an established good friend of Asean. When administration officials got tough towards any single country because of perceived transgressions of human rights and international norms, it is American business that has spoken up for the Asean country in question, making the case for continued engagement. Former president Bill Clinton made economics part of his foreign policy, started a bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) with Singapore and Chile in his last months in office and, very importantly, gave normal trading relations status to China. Former president Bush pursued a strong trade policy, concluded the US-Singapore FTA, supported Vietnam's entry into the World Trade Organisation, started FTAs with Thailand and Malaysia though it went nowhere, proposed a Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific, and agreed to join Chile, Singapore, New Zealand and Brunei - the so-called P4 nucleus - to be P5 and turned it into the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

The TPP now comprises nine countries - Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the US, Vietnam, plus two more that have just joined, Mexico and Canada. Of the 11 TPP members now, four are Asean member states.

President Barack Obama came into office as America's first Pacific President, having grown up in Hawaii and lived in Indonesia in his boyhood. President Obama also came into office at a time when China's emergence as the next great power was very clear. The US strategic rebalance by the Obama administration reflects its belief that the centre of gravity of American foreign and economic policies has shifted to Asia, and maintaining peace and its role in the region in view of China's rise is important.

In fact, Ms Hillary Clinton is the first US Secretary of State to visit Asia and included South-east Asia on her first trip. The last time this happened was when Mr Dean Acheson was Secretary of State during the Vietnam war. Secretary Clinton and her very active Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell have made engagement with Asean a hallmark of her term and likely to be its legacy. Ms Clinton has personally visited every Asean country, unheard of before for a US Secretary of State, and State Department has initiated policy talks or dialogues with every country in Asean.

For Washington, Asean is important in another way. It sees new democracies emerging and believes it should support and help the fledgling democracies grow stronger. The Philippines, a US treaty ally, has enjoyed good support from the US since Ms Cory Aquino overthrew president Ferdinand Marcos. In the case of Indonesia, the US has been keen to work with the country, which it sees as an example of a moderate Muslim democracy. Even Vietnam's economic opening up stirred excitement.

Now it is Myanmar's turn. Myanmar's sudden and rapid political reforms have enthralled the US and I have no doubts the country will attract more American investments than it can absorb presently. For the longest time, US policy towards Asean was held hostage by Myanmar.

The region is now entering a new phase. In recent months, the East Asian region has seen a flare-up of territorial disputes, in the South China Sea and in North-east Asia, between China and Japan, and South Korea and Japan. The disputes are all different but how each will play out will have an impact on the others. The robust engagement of the US has changed the chemistry in the region. It has emboldened some of the players in the dispute and invited reactions. Early this year, there were heightened tensions in the region. The Asean meetings in Phnom Penh were difficult but there is a desire to find a way forward on the South China Sea dispute. We have seen quiet diplomacy and shuttle diplomacy undertaken by senior officials to the different capitals in the region. In the end, the issue can best be solved peacefully through international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and bilaterally.

With the renewed engagement with Asean, or the rebalance, some countries in the region have commented the engagement is too focused on the military, and that the US should seek to do more in the economic and cultural spheres. It is likely that in the coming decade Asean would find itself caught in the dynamics of two great powers, the US and China, as they work out a new relationship for themselves - that of rising power and established power. Asean member states have indicated they do not want to have to choose and wish to nurture a good relationship with both.

Singapore in Washington

THE relationship between Singapore and the US has historically been good in substance and in atmospherics. Good relations is the norm, poor relations an exception. Singapore has always appreciated the US presence in the region and it has been articulate about it. Mr Lee Kuan Yew, when he was prime minister, told American audiences that the US presence in South-east Asia, fighting the Vietnam war, "bought time" for South-east Asian governments to build up their political institutions and for economic development. Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines and Brunei emerged as non-communist countries adopting market economies and members of the international economic system.

Bilateral relations today between our two countries are broad-based, but economics, trade and defence are important foundations. And as Singapore's economy developed and matured, we found common interests in other areas. Whenever I'm asked in Washington what has changed in my work as a diplomat in the 16 years I was there, my answer is: "It is not the United States that has changed; my work has changed because Singapore has changed. We have become a more developed and more diversified economy." The relationship used to be largely based on trade and defence, but now we have interests and conversations in other areas such as education, university alliances, the medical and biotech spheres, new technology, museum development, culture, and social institutions assisting the less able and fortunate.

The economic relationship between the two countries is a solid one. Singapore was the 15th-largest trading partner of the US last year and total bilateral trade was worth US$61 billion. In absolute numbers, its trade is worth more, but its position has slipped though it is still the largest trader of all the Asean countries.

I want to urge Singapore business people to use the USSFTA more. IE Singapore has an office in New York and, of course, in Singapore and it should be able to assist those who wish to find ways of entering the US market. Spring Singapore also tries to tie up small and medium-sized enterprises with US companies. I know the opportunities in the region, in Asia, are abundant but there is another opportunity over there.

But I have been giving you figures which present a rather formal picture of what is going on between Singapore and the US economically.

Through negotiating the FTA, Singapore began to engage the US as never before in their political process. The negotiation team from Singapore, my embassy and I were constantly in touch with somebody. We talked at length to US businesses, congressmen and senators to see what the market will bear; the officials across the administration in different relevant agencies; the media people to win them over; lobbyists who helped us; the US Chamber of Commerce - very crucial in the FTA - and travelled to the states outside of Washington. We learnt to sell, to pitch, to make a case. We learnt more about the US than we had ever before and we grew closer as friends. We fought, but we befriended.

Now let me move on to our defence relationship.

The US and Singapore are not treaty allies. Defence cooperation between Singapore and the US began in the 1960s with American ships and aircraft calling at the bases here when operations in Vietnam were at their peak. When the US was asked to leave Subic Bay and Clark Airbase, Singapore signed a memorandum of understanding in 1990 to permit US forces the use of its facilities. Under the MOU, the US established a logistics command, COMLOGWESPAC, in Sembawang. In 1998, this was extended to allow deep draft vessels to berth in Changi Naval Base, so today you have US aircraft carriers and naval ships calling at Changi Naval Base. Ships from other countries, including France, Russia and China, also call at the base.

The bulk of Singapore's military hardware is purchased from the United States. In land-scarce Singapore, because of the shortage of training areas, the US provides us with training facilities, which we appreciate. In 2005, we negotiated a Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA) as a natural extension of the cooperation to include new areas not previously covered, such as counter-terrorism, counter-proliferation and technology exchange. As part of the SFA cooperation, we agreed to the US deploying Littoral Combat Ships on a rotational basis beginning next year.

Singapore supported the US-led war in Iraq in 2003 because it believes in the fight against global terrorism networks. After all, we discovered the JI network in Singapore to our shock. More than 40 countries joined the Coalition of the Willing. From 2003 to 2008, the Singapore Armed Forces rotated Landing Ship Tanks, sent a KC-135 airborne tanker and a C-130 transport aircraft to help. To Afghanistan we have sent medical and surgical teams, military trainers and a Weapons Locating Radar detachment, unmanned aerial vehicles and imagery-analysis teams. On another front, given our advocacy of freedom of navigation as a trading nation, we joined the US-led Combined Maritime Forces, a multinational counter-piracy effort in the Gulf of Aden, and was in command of the Combined Task Force two times.

Continuing focus

THERE are, of course, some prickly issues between Asean and the US, and Singapore and the US. These cover differences in views over human rights questions. The Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report and the Human Rights Report can be controversial and contested, with Asean countries expressing their views and refuting the US reports. But America is a country where human rights has a central place in its foreign policy. As the world grows more complicated, and political and social transitions are chequered, ideological interests have not trumped the strategic in the US. Each administration has had to work out the balance.

There is no doubt the US and Asean have deepened their engagement with each other. It comes at a time of a changing regional strategic context but also because Asean economies have emerged with good growth and potential. Singaporeans will be amazed at the high regard that we enjoy - "the good little country", the "country with the solutions" - in Washington and the US.

We are regarded as the country with a strategic view of the world and are valued for our analytical insights. Our leaders and bureaucrats are also considered objective and forthright. Indonesia is getting a lot of attention, Vietnam still does, as do the Philippines and Malaysia. Myanmar is the latest star. There are compelling reasons to keep the Asean region on the radar screen in the competitive environment of Washington.

We are a few weeks from the US presidential election. Whoever is elected on Nov 6, whether it is President Obama or former governor Mitt Romney, I believe Asia will still have to be the focus. We have to wait for the new team to watch for the nuances.

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