Engagement with Southeast Asia, a strategically important, economically dynamic region at the heart of the Asia-Pacific, is a central pillar of the U.S. Rebalance to Asia. Sitting astride some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is strategically important to U.S. interests, and is a key partner in addressing regional and global challenges. Collectively, the ten member states of ASEAN comprise the third-largest economy in Asia and the seventh-largest in the world, with a combined GDP of $2.4 trillion. The ASEAN region is young and dynamic, with a combined population of 632 million people–more than 65 percent of whom are below the age of 35. The United States and ASEAN share a strong interest in building and sustaining a rules-based order in the Asia-Pacific, one in which countries can pursue their objectives peacefully and in accordance with international law and norms.
Recognizing ASEAN’s diplomatic, economic, and strategic importance to the United States, the Obama Administration has invested heavily in its relationship with ASEAN. In 2009, his first year in office, President Obama became the first U.S. president to meet all ten ASEAN leaders as a group; he has met ASEAN leaders a total of six times. He has made seven separate visits to the ASEAN region, more than twice the number of any previous U.S. president.
In 2009, the United States became a party to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia — the bedrock diplomatic document of ASEAN — opening the door for the United States to join the East Asia Summit (EAS). President Obama participated in the EAS for the first time in 2011 and has attended three of the four Summits since. With strong U.S. support, the EAS has become the Asia-Pacific’s premier leaders-level forum on political and security issues, helping to advance a rules-based order and spur cooperation on pressing challenges, including maritime security, countering violent extremism, and transnational cyber cooperation. Secretary Kerry, Secretary of Commerce Pritzker, and other senior U.S. officials have also significantly expanded their engagement with ASEAN leaders, both in regional fora and through visits to ASEAN countries.
In 2010, the United States became the first non-ASEAN country to establish a dedicated diplomatic mission and appoint a resident Ambassador to the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta. The Obama Administration also launched the Lower Mekong Initiative in 2009, creating a partnership between the United States and the countries of the Mekong sub-region — Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam — to support sustainable and responsible development, and to narrow the development gap by building capacity in ASEAN’s least developed members.
Since 2010, the Obama Administration has provided $4 billion in development assistance to ASEAN countries. This assistance directly supports our strategic Rebalance to Asia by promoting regional stability and sustainable development.
The United States is strengthening people-to-people links across ASEAN. In December 2013, President Obama launched the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI), a network of people-to-people ties that will benefit U.S.-ASEAN relations for generations to come. YSEALI now engages more than 60,000 young leaders (aged 18-35) from across ASEAN and the United States. The initiative provides training, fellowships, and funding opportunities, as well as a platform to address regional issues, including entrepreneurship, environmental protection, and education. The United States is also working with ASEAN to strengthen women’s leadership in the region by supporting emerging women leaders in the public and private sectors. In 2012, the United States launched the Fulbright U.S.-ASEAN Visiting Scholar Initiative, bringing academics from ASEAN countries to study in the United States, which adds to the more than 700 U.S. Fulbright scholarships awarded to ASEAN members annually. In 2014, the United States and ASEAN launched the Science and Technology Fellows Program, which connects young scientists in ASEAN with opportunities to solve real world challenges, like biodiversity, climate change, and alternative fuels. Today, three million Americans visit the ASEAN region annually and visitors from ASEAN countries spend over $4 billion in the United States each year.
Our economic ties are strong, and growing stronger. ASEAN countries are collectively the United States’ fourth-largest trading partner, with GDP growth that has exceeded the global average every year for the past 15 years. Trade in goods expanded 5 percent in 2015 and now tops $226 billion. During the Obama Administration, trade in goods with ASEAN countries has expanded by 55 percent. More than 500,000 American jobs are now supported by trade in goods and services with ASEAN. U.S. companies have been the leading source of foreign direct investment (FDI) in ASEAN. With a stock of over $226 billion, U.S. FDI in ASEAN has nearly doubled since 2008. FDI from ASEAN countries in the United States was $24.2 billion in 2014.
We have expanded our trade ties with the region. Four ASEAN countries — Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam — are part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). We also have Trade and Investment Framework Agreements or other formal trade dialogues with nine of the ten ASEAN countries and separately with ASEAN as an institution. These agreements and dialogues provide a mechanism to address trade and investment issues and deepen our economic ties. The United States collaborated with ASEAN countries to create the ASEAN Single Window, which facilitates customs processing and reinforces an efficient regional trade environment.
We have strengthened defense ties throughout the ASEAN region. Under the Obama Administration, we have significantly expanded our defense cooperation with ASEAN countries. Since 2010, the Secretary of Defense has attended every ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM+), an important forum for advancing security cooperation. In 2011, the United States became the first country to establish a dedicated Military Advisor/Liaison Officer at the U.S. Mission to ASEAN in Jakarta. The Secretary of Defense hosted his ASEAN counterparts in the United States for the first time for the U.S.-ASEAN Defense Forum in Hawaii in 2014 to discuss important strategic issues. In 2015, the United States announced a new Technical Advisor to ASEAN to support increased information-sharing on transregional threats. ASEAN members are important partners in global security efforts, including the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL (Malaysia, Singapore) and counter-piracy off the Horn of Africa (Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand).
We are partnering to address a growing number of shared global challenges. The United States and ASEAN pledged more than a year ago to achieve a new global climate change agreement, which we did with the rest of the world in Paris last December. The United States and ASEAN cooperate closely to create a low-carbon economic growth trajectory and build more climate resilient societies. U.S. assistance for climate change adaptation in Cambodia and the Philippines has strengthened the capacity of local authorities to mitigate the impacts of destabilizing disasters. In Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, U.S. climate change mitigation programs are promoting environmentally sustainable development strategies. The United States works with ASEAN institutions, like the ASEAN Coordinating Center for Humanitarian Assistance, to improve disaster response coordination in support of the ‘One ASEAN, One Response’ initiative.
The ASEAN region has been at peace for 40 years, and ASEAN plays an active and positive role in the region and in the world. ASEAN countries collectively provide 4,866 personnel to U.N. peacekeeping efforts. Fifteen years ago, many feared that Southeast Asia would be the “second front” in the fight against terror. Instead, Southeast Asian nations have made major strides in dealing with terrorism, though it remains a threat as elsewhere.
We are committed to working together with ASEAN to implement the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Addis Ababa Action Agenda around the world and in the region. Our economic development and governance programs in countries such as the Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia have helped to generate jobs, increase incomes, and create a more reliable regulatory environment. The U.S. is also partnering with ASEAN to advance the Global Health Security Agenda. By accelerating capacity to prevent, detect, and rapidly respond to infectious disease threats, we are saving lives and advancing peace and security.
Our investments in health and education in seven ASEAN countries are increasing prospects for expanded and more inclusive economic growth. The United States will continue to partner with ASEAN countries like the Philippines and Indonesia that are promoting good governance and transparency across the region, including through the Open Government Partnership. Our support for democracy programs in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Burma are building institutions that foster rules-based order and respect for human rights.
ASEAN’s leadership is central to building and sustaining a rules-based order in the Asia-Pacific. Under the Obama Administration, the United States has strongly backed ASEAN’s central role at the heart of the evolving institutional architecture of the Asia-Pacific region, as demonstrated by our commitment to institutions like the EAS and ADMM+. ASEAN’s leadership of regional institutions is founded on respect for international law and norms and peaceful resolution of disputes, principles the United States shares. In 2015, ASEAN formally launched the ASEAN Community to mark nearly 50 years of integration efforts. The United States strongly supports ASEAN’s effort to realize a “rules-based” Community that serves the people of ASEAN and ensures human rights and fundamental freedoms, including by helping ASEAN integrate international human rights standards into legislative and judicial processes. The ASEAN Convention Against Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, endorsed in November 2015, is a landmark achievement and established a framework to effectively address human trafficking and ensure protection of people throughout the region. The United States will continue to support ASEAN’s leadership in ensuring full implementation of the Convention.
The United States and ASEAN are taking their relationship to a new level. In November 2015, the leaders of the United States and ASEAN formally elevated their relationship to a strategic partnership. The Sunnylands Summit — the first U.S.-ASEAN standalone Summit in the United States and the first Summit for the ASEAN Community — marks a new milestone in our cooperation. The U.S.-ASEAN partnership has been important in addressing shared challenges on a diverse range of issues — from combatting terrorism and pandemic disease, to upholding international law and standards in the South China Sea and in cyberspace, to taking meaningful action on climate change, inclusive economic growth, and trafficking-in-persons. The United States is firmly committed to the Asia-Pacific and to ASEAN as an essential pillar of the region.