US-ASEAN Forum shows the need for concrete plans on economic integration and human rights

Last week in Jakarta, the US-ASEAN Partnership Forum brought policy experts, young leaders, and ASEAN and government representatives together to discuss the future of US-ASEAN relations. The forum focused on shared challenges, economic integration, development, and generating policy recommendations for both ASEAN and the US.

The event was organized by the Pacific Forum, a foreign policy research organization based in Honolulu, and the Habibie Centre, a think tank based in Jakarta. It was also sponsored by the US Mission to ASEAN and the US Department of State. Officials from the ASEAN Secretariat joined the forum, as did 25 participants from the Pacific Forum Young Leaders Programme.

Will the US follow Europe’s lead on human rights?

A key question for US-ASEAN partnerships is whether the US will work to help ASEAN governments address human rights abuses within the region. The EU has recently begun the final steps to revoke Cambodia’s membership in the Everything But Arms program, a free trade deal with EU member states, because of Cambodia’s poor human rights record and deteriorating democracy.

Participants at the forum this week discussed how the US could play a role in the rule of law and governance of ASEAN states. At the end of December, US President Donald Trump signed the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA) into law which outlined some specifics for the administration’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific policy. ARIA covers security, including joint maritime exercises in the East and South China Seas, but also includes US$25 million to strengthen human rights and pro-democracy efforts.

The goal is to use “United States values” of democracy, human rights and good governance to “reduce poverty, build rule of law, combat corruption, reduce the allure of extremism, and promote economic growth.” The act specifically cites threats to rule of law and civil liberties in Cambodia, China, North Korea, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Myanmar, based in part on research by the NGO Freedom House.

For now, there’s been no mention of specific action similar to that taken by the EU in Cambodia, but ARIA includes a call for the US government to develop a new strategy for human rights in ASEAN over the next three months. Given that human rights haven’t made it on the agenda so far for any of the Trump administration’s talks with ASEAN leaders, it’s unlikely that this strategy will result in any serious pressure for Southeast Asian governments, nor will the US make economic cooperation contingent on a strong record on human rights.

The US will check Chinese influence but will not follow its BRI model

Participants in the forum this week also discussed opportunities to build economic cooperation between the US and ASEAN. They raised concerns about Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. The move showed ASEAN leaders that the US government has no plans for its involvement in the region to mirror the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). ASEAN states are already scaling down agreements for China’s BRI projects and looking for ways to check Beijing’s ambitions in order to protect their sovereignty and political independence.

The US is still working to balance Chinese influence. The most explicit US-ASEAN collaboration on this goal is around security issues in the South China Sea, where the US has been open about its intentions to prevent any Chinese incursions on ASEAN states’ sovereignty.

Amid US-China trade disputes, it’s not clear what the Free and Open Indo-Pacific policy means for ASEAN nations that look to the US for economic support. Last July, when US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced US$113 million in investments for technology and infrastructure in ASEAN, his office stated that the US’s Indo-Pacific policy isn’t meant to compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

“It is a made-in-China, made-for-China initiative,” said Brian Hook, senior policy adviser for Pompeo, to reporters after the announcement. “Our way of doing things is to keep the government’s role very modest and it’s focused on helping businesses do what they do best.”

When US Vice President Mike Pence met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in November, they released a statement outlining plans for investments in infrastructure, development projects, and energy across the Indo-Pacific. The US government pledged to invest US$60 billion, while the Japanese government announced a total of US$10 billion.

Between territorial disputes in the South China Sea and predatory Belt and Road debt schemes, the US and ASEAN both seek to continue cooperation on countering Chinese influence. So far, US-ASEAN relationships in the age of Belt and Road have largely ignored human rights and rule of law issues, with Trump even maintaining a warm attitude towards Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte despite the death toll from his drug war totalling 20,000 or more.

ARIA will define US-ASEAN relations in the near future, as more details emerge regarding how the Act’s US$1.5 billion in funding will be used and how much will come to ASEAN. For now, it appears the US will continue to facilitate larger investments in ASEAN while largely ignoring crimes committed by the region’s authoritarian regimes. The Trump administration may not be seeking to mirror the Belt and Road, but that doesn’t mean it will let human rights abuses get in the way of plans to maintain a strong regional presence.