“Prospects for ASEAN after New US Defence Secretary’s Maiden Pacific Tour” by Glenn Ong and Hoang Thi Ha

2019/69, 16 August 2019
Newly appointed US Defence Secretary, Mark Esper, kicked off the final leg of his first international trip last Thursday (8 August) just as ASEAN was commemorating its 52nd anniversary. To reinforce US alliances and partnerships, he visited Australia, Japan, Mongolia, and the Republic of Korea. Esper will be the point man to execute Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy, which emphasises US support for ASEAN centrality. While confirmation of a new Pentagon chief may herald greater certainty for the US to engage with ASEAN and its member states on the emerging Indo-Pacific concept, ASEAN will have to wait its turn as other flashpoints jostle for Esper’s immediate attention. In recent weeks, US officials have had to manage the rapid pace of developments on the Korean peninsula following Pyongyang’s recent missile tests, as well as the escalating political and trade row between Seoul and Tokyo.
US officials continue to be preoccupied with Northeast Asia, but should not neglect the importance that Southeast Asia and ASEAN hold for the Indo-Pacific more broadly. The effects of the debilitating US-China trade war, recent incidents in the South China Sea, along with competing and nebulous narratives of the Indo-Pacific concept, have all unnerved Southeast Asian policymakers. To compound matters, US ambassadorships to ASEAN, Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand remain vacant or pending to this date. This undermines communication channels for both sides to represent their interests at higher levels effectively.
ASEAN sits at the maritime crossroads of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, cementing the grouping’s importance to Washington and Beijing in their competition to shape the strategic discourse in the region. To their credit, ASEAN member states have laboured hard to bolster ASEAN’s claims to regional centrality. The ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, published on 23 June, reaffirmed ASEAN’s desire to preserve the regional rules-based order and uphold the principles of inter-state relations that are congruent with US interests, such as compliance with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and respect for freedom of navigation and overflight. These efforts, though necessary, remain insufficient. ASEAN needs to do more for ASEAN-led mechanisms to be effective for, and relevant to, the Indo-Pacific’s future.   

To be sure, ASEAN has reasons to be hopeful that the US will continue to accord importance to the grouping and the region it represents. On the eve of ASEAN’s anniversary, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reiterated that the “United States remains committed to ASEAN’s central role in the region”, and that the “strategic partnership between the United States and ASEAN contributes to our shared vision of a rules-based, open, and inclusive Indo Pacific”. These words, which echo familiar tropes in US engagements with Asia, are comforting but offer little that is substantively new. It remains to be seen if Washington will translate these words into concrete initiatives in the coming months. The upcoming 6th ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus) this November will provide a good testbed for whether, and to what degree, Esper will give substance to Pompeo’s words and to US commitment to further empower ASEAN centrality in its Indo-Pacific strategy.

As ASEAN recovers from the high of its 52nd anniversary celebrations and while Mark Esper warms up to the hot seat, both parties have much work ahead as they brace themselves for the potential eruption of flashpoints on the Korean peninsula and in the South China Sea. The US could risk being exposed on both fronts if it fails to strike a balance between the two. Indeed, the very definition of a “networked region” that the US seeks to promote through its Indo-Pacific strategy necessarily entails an interconnected space. ASEAN, on its part, will need to muster more than just repeated exhortations of ASEAN centrality.   
Mr. Glenn Ong is Research Officer and Ms. Hoang Thi Ha is Lead Researcher (Political-Security Affairs) at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

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