APARC's Southeast Asia Program was pleased to host a diplomatic delegation on June 20, 2023, to delve into the state of trade engagement in the region and examine the challenges that could impede the advancement of democratic values. Guests included U.S. Ambassador to ASEAN Yohannes Abraham, U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines MaryKay Carlson, U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Marc Knapper, U.S. Ambassador to Malaysia Brian McFeeters, and Ambassador Ted Osius, President and CEO of the US-ASEAN Business Council. This forum provided a platform for the esteemed diplomats to exchange insights and perspectives on the crucial interplay between trade, democracy, and diplomacy in Southeast Asia.
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At the meeting, participants considered the future of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF), an economic partnership that the United States and a dozen initial regional counterparts launched in May 2022 with the goal of advancing cooperation, stability, prosperity, development, and peace for the 14 IPEF economies.. The IPEF partners have been actively involved in dialogues to outline the scope of the four foundational elements of the Framework, encompassing Trade, Supply Chains, Clean Economy, and Fair Economy.
In considering great power competition with China, participants considered the effects of the global democratic recession on receptiveness to partnerships with the U.S. and its potential ramifications on the international community’s ability to work together effectively on development projects and other initiatives. These challenges have made it harder to compete with China for investment and strategic partnerships. However, participants stated that Beijing does not always deliver on its investment promises, and when it does, there can be “serious strings attached.”
The group also discussed the work of the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council, which aims to foster economic growth and trade ties between the U.S. and ASEAN’s ten member countries. The Council remains an integral part of the U.S.’s approach to bolstering diplomatic, strategic, economic, cultural, and social ties in the region.
As for the future of U.S. engagement with Southeast Asia, the group discussed the evolving role of minilateral groupings — small, issue-based, informal, and noninstitutionalized partnerships that offer means of coordinating international policy action.
Minilaterals stand in contrast to older and larger partnerships like ASEAN, which has come under scrutiny for its inability to address the human rights crisis in Myanmar. Despite ASEAN’s persistent challenge of presenting a unified message, it is still relevant. “ASEAN has to be important to us because it is important to countries like Indonesia and Singapore, which are critical partners to the U.S.,” said one participant. Yet, while ASEAN remains at the center of debate in the region, the future of ASEAN is uncertain and many stakeholders are cognizant of the grouping’s limitations.
When considering areas where the U.S. has a competitive advantage in the region, the participants agreed that education, science and technology partnerships, national labs, human resource information, corporate social responsibility, the rule of law, transparency, and diversity all remained desirable attributes for potential partners. Furthermore, a partnership with the U.S. implies access to its vast network of like-minded democratic governments.
The meeting concluded with a reaffirmation of the longstanding and crucial relationship between the U.S. and Southeast Asia and the continued importance of fostering fruitful economic and strategic engagement with the region.