The United States and Southeast Asia: Economic and Security Partners |

The United States and Southeast Asia: Economic and Security Partners

AS Russel QNA

In spite of shifting power dynamics in the region and the uncertainties of an election year in the United States, the US is here to stay in Asia and aims to build partnerships based on trust, said US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel R. Russel. Speaking at a lecture at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, the top US diplomat for East Asia emphasised the Obama administration’s commitment to the rebalance of US resources and attention to Asia.

Reasons for the US focus on Asia

Mr Russel gave four reasons for the US’s abiding interest in Asia. First: the “simple economics of shared prosperity”. He noted that the US has served as the region’s engine of growth by acting as the ultimate consumer of Asian exports, a large source of foreign direct investment, and a “fount of innovation”. On the other hand, the US also relies on the region: Asia is no longer just a consumer but increasingly a “co-innovator” and partner in developing solutions.

Second is the necessity of shared security. Mr Russel noted that 2009 and 2016 were marked by North Korean nuclear tests, a reminder of the common security threats that both regions face.

The third reason is the long-term importance of institution-building – strong institutions promote a rule-based order that “serves as a brake on the strong and creates space for the small”, as Mr Russel put it.

Lastly, the US feels a “moral imperative” to uphold human rights and freedom, said Mr Russel, noting that the US has used its influence to support efforts to promote justice and good governance.

US efforts to rebalance towards Asia

Mr Russel then elaborated on US efforts in the four areas he had laid out. In the economic arena, Mr Russel said the US responded to the global downturn not with protectionism but by completing the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement, “doubling down” on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, and pursuing investment and IT agreements. The US remains the largest investor in Singapore and Southeast Asia, ahead of China, Japan and South Korea combined.

In security, Mr Russel said the US takes its role as military power “very seriously”. More than 60 per cent of the US Navy is stationed in the region, while the US partners various nations in training, capacity building and multilateral exercises.

However, Mr Russel stressed that the US is the region’s preferred security partner not just because of the quality of its military but “because we are trusted”. This trust, he said, comes about because the US supports the rule of law “even when it’s not convenient”.

In the third area of building institutions, Mr Russel named a slew of partnerships between the US and ASEAN in diplomacy, counter-terrorism, disaster relief and youth programmes. Such programmes show that the US is investing in its relationship with ASEAN for the long term and that it wants to “work with the region, not dominate it”. “We are a collaborative partner, not a hegemonic one. We want trust, not tribute; we want friends, not vassal states,” he said.

Finally, Mr Russel said the trust the US has built has allowed it to advance its “values-based foreign policy”. These are not Western or American values but universal values, he added, citing American support for reform in Myanmar and its commitment to speak out for basic rights and freedoms in the region.

 Outlook for US-Asia relations

As for the year ahead, Mr Russel stressed that regardless of the presidential election result, America’s relationship with Asia would endure, simply because it is in America’s national interest and there is bipartisan accord on the importance of the region. He also highlighted initiatives that mark the high pace of engagement between the US and ASEAN, such as the historic Sunnylands summit between President Obama and ASEAN leaders due to take place in February.

However, security threats remain. This includes North Korea, where the US and its partners will maintain their strategy of deterrence, pressure and diplomacy. The aim is to get its leaders to accept that they have no viable alternative to an negotiated end to North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes, said Mr Russel, citing the Iran deal as an example of how the US keeps its word. Another threat is terrorism, heightened by the recent Jakarta bombings. Mr Russel highlighted the importance of inter-agency and cross-border cooperation to countering terrorism at all levels.

Mr Russel, however, reserved his strongest words for tensions in the South China Sea, noting the Chinese construction of military-grade runways and facilities on disputed reefs in the Spratly Islands and instances where vessels were warned away and fishermen chased out of fishing grounds. He said: “You can’t claim to uphold freedom of navigation and then block access to international waters by calling it a ‘security zone’ – concepts that just don’t exist in international law.” He also reiterated the US call for all parties to use diplomatic or legal mechanisms, not unilateral actions or coercion, to reconcile disputes. Elaborating further during the question-and-answer session, Mr Russel noted that China’s behaviour in the area may have the unintended effect of creating a network of countries that link themselves in security matters with the US, thus creating the very dynamic that China seeks to avoid.

Watch the recorded lecture here.


On 22 January 2016, the US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel R. Russel gave a lecture titled “The United States and Southeast Asia: Economic and Security Partners” at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. The lecture, which was chaired by Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh, was part of the LKY School-US Embassy speaker series. Mr Russel, a career member of the Senior Foreign service, previously served at the White House as Special Assistant to the President and National Security Council (NSC) Senior Director for Asian Affairs, where he helped formulate President Obama’s strategic rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region. Prior to joining the NSC in 2009, Mr Russel served as Director of the Office of Japanese Affairs and held assignments as US Consul General in Osaka-Kobe, Japan (2005-2008); Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in The Hague, Netherlands (2002-2005); Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in Nicosia, Cyprus (1999-2002); Chief of Staff to the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering (1997-99); Special Assistant to the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs (1995-96); Political Section Unit Chief at U.S. Embassy Seoul, Republic of Korea (1992-95); Political Advisor to the Permanent Representative to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, Ambassador Pickering (1989-92); Vice Consul in Osaka and Branch Office Manager in Nagoya, Japan (1987-89); and Assistant to the Ambassador to Japan, former Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (1985-87). Mr Russel is also the author of America’s Place in the World, a book published by Georgetown University.

 Written by the External Affairs department

Date:
Thursday, 04 February 2016

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