the U.S. Agenda in Asia
With the onset of the
“war on terror” and the increasing political and economic importance of
ASEAN to the whole of Asia and the Pacific, the U.S. appears to be out to
increasingly use the organization as a region-wide mechanism for meeting
its objectives in the sub-region and beyond
BY SONNY AFRICA
Posted by Bulatlat
Southeast Asia is essential to the
United States (U.S.) for securing its geopolitical and economic interests
not only in East Asia and the Pacific but beyond to South Asia, Central
Asia and even West Asia (or the Middle East). A sustained American
military presence in the region is indispensable; an economic presence is
likewise vital, both for the regional alliances that they underpin and the
super profits that they directly generate.
These interests are what motivate the
U.S.’ engagement in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
The grouping itself was created by the U.S. as a Cold War line of defense.
A loose and non-binding organization
The U.S. formed ASEAN in the late 1960s
as a bulwark against the expansion of communism from China, North Korea
and Indochina. The immediate threat that needed to be hemmed in at the
time was seen as coming from Vietnam even as there were other countries
with revolutionary movements at varying stages of development. ASEAN
founding documents were nominally about economic concerns but its practice
was mainly in geo-political and diplomatic matters.
The ASEAN had just five members when it
was founded in 1967: Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, and
Singapore. Brunei Darussalam was admitted in 1984, Vietnam in 1995, Laos
and Myanmar in 1997, and then Cambodia in 1999-- thus including all the
major countries of Southeast Asia.
None of ASEAN’s members can be said to
be a global economic power and no single member-country or group of
countries can assert a generally acknowledged leadership role. These
factors combine to define the organization’s character so far as a loose
and non-binding organization whose members are able to preserve their
This loose character makes ASEAN
hard-pressed to deal decisively with sensitive and potentially divisive
internal issues. It also does not have a record of taking unified
positions in larger forums like the World Trade Organization, Asia-Pacific
Economic Cooperation or in United Nations Millennium Summits. To date, the
ASEAN does not yet even have observer status in the UN and indeed is the
only regional grouping in the world still without such status.
Since none of the ASEAN countries are
major military powers and because individually and collectively, their
most important economic partners are not the organization’s members, ASEAN
is consequently unable to substantially define a “regional” agenda
autonomous of external First World interests. Indeed, the major direction
of ASEAN today-- as embodied in the targeted ASEAN Community by 2020-- is
conspicuously framed in terms of building closer security and economic
links with non-ASEAN powers.
The U.S. in Southeast Asia
The U.S.’s main strategic objectives in
Southeast Asia are to:
- Ensure its
dominance in the sub-region and use this for developing and maintaining
its hegemony over the rest of Asia, including competing with other major
East Asian powers especially Japan and emerging China.
Preserve its free access to,
if not outright control of, the major sea lanes from the Persian
Gulf/Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean: the strategic Malacca, Sunda,
Lombok, and Makassar Straits as well as the South China Sea. These sea
routes transiting Southeast Asia are vital for global seaborne commerce--
reportedly accounting for more than half of the world’s annual merchant
shipping traffic with trade and energy shipments worth some $1.5
trillion-- and for U.S. military “force projection” in the Indian Ocean to
as far away as West Asia.
Create, deepen and expand
trade and investment opportunities. The U.S. here directly competes with
Japan, Europe and to a much lesser degree China. Although manufacturing is
a key area, the U.S.’ main thrust is currently in opening up neocolonial
financial and service sectors.
These three objectives underpin all of
the U.S.’ bilateral and regional level maneuvering in Southeast Asia. The
U.S. has aggressively pursued these for decades through, and also outside,
ASEAN. It has achieved its military objectives through its important
control over individual countries such as the Philippines, Thailand,
Singapore and others. It has also attained its economic objectives through
the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, through bilateral
economic pressure and arrangements, and multilaterally through the World
With the onset of the “war on terror”
and the increasing political and economic importance of ASEAN to the whole
of Asia and the Pacific, the U.S. appears to be increasingly using the
organization as a region-wide mechanism for meeting its objectives in the
sub-region and beyond.
The overall U.S. approach is to elevate
its bilateral military relations to a more assertive region-wide level as
possible and as necessary. The foundations are military exercises, both
with individual countries such as Balikatan in the Philippines and Cobra
Gold in Thailand, and with coordinated sets of sequential bilateral
exercises--the biggest of which so far is the Cooperation Afloat Readiness
and Training (CARAT) exercise of the U.S. Pacific Fleet with the
Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. At the
regional level the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) has its umbrella security
network Exercise Team Challenge (ETC) which is moreover used to coordinate
with the militaries of Australia and New Zealand.
The U.S. has also become the dominant
economic power in the region. In the last five to six years it has
overtaken Japan as the region’s biggest source of foreign direct
investment (FDI). Total U.S. FDI in the region over the period 1995-2003
sums to $35.7 billion or 16.3 percent of total FDI in Southeast Asia--
followed by Japan ($28 billion or 12.7 percent of the total) and the UK
($25.8 billion, 11.7 percent).
The U.S. is also ASEAN’s largest
trading partner where, at $1.2 trillion over the decade 1995-2004, it
accounted for 14.7 percent of total ASEAN two-way trade (i.e. import and
export) outside Southeast Asia.
All these investments have been in the
service of creating a First World-dominated region-wide production base
through dispersed industrial enclaves or so-called export processing
zones. American, Japanese and European transnational corporations (TNCs)
have taken advantage of economic globalization to fragment their
production processes across Southeast Asia and set up firms and domestic
enterprises in the form of subsidiaries, affiliates and subcontractors.
Hosting the 12th ASEAN Summit: A
It is significant that the upcoming
12th ASEAN Summit is hosted by the Philippine government which has, under
President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, proven that it is the U.S.’ most loyal
client state in the region. Since the chair largely decides on the agenda,
it may be expected that U.S. interests will be clearly reflected. The
exact agenda of the December Summit will become clearer as it approaches
although there are already indications of what it will contain.
Consistent with the U.S. “war on
terror” theme, the Philippines is pushing to complete an ASEAN Convention
on Counter-Terrorism. It has also drafted a document that proposes ASEAN
engagement with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The SCO is a
six-country military alliance founded in 2001 that specifically excludes
the U.S. and implicitly challenges its hegemony particularly in Central
Asia. It includes Russia, China and the Central Asian Republics of the
former Soviet Union (Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan)
with Pakistan, India, Mongolia and Iran as observers. The proposed ASEAN
“engagement” is then potentially a backdoor for the U.S. into the SCO
through its proxies such as the Philippines.
Also on the agenda are the approval of
a “blueprint” for the proposed ASEAN Charter and the creation of a
drafting committee for this towards completion in time for the 13th Summit
in Singapore in December 2007. The proposed ASEAN Charter aims, among
others, to tighten organizational structures and establish more formal
decision-making processes which would facilitate the implementation of
The Philippines is also pushing to
discuss energy security including opening up access to the region’s oil
and liquefied natural gas resources; Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam
and the Philippines are known to have rich oil and gas reserves. Other
items on the agenda, within the framework of the ASEAN Socio-Cultural
Community, are an ASEAN Declaration on the Rights of Migrant Workers and
an ASEAN Declaration on HIV/AIDS.
All these initiatives make it clear
what the essential agenda of the 12th Summit is: to increase U.S. military
presence and to deepen neoliberal globalization in Southeast Asia. With
reports from Joseph Yu, IBON Features/ Posted by Bulatlat
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© 2006 Bulatlat
Alipato Media Center
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