Q&A with young leaders at US-Asean Partnership Forum

Young leaders attending the US-Asean Partnership Forum (clockwise, from top left) Jeremy Danz, Piyanat Soikham, Deepu Nair, Catherine Setiawan and Sithy Rath Daravuth. PHOTOS: COURTESY OF THE PACIFIC FORUM

JAKARTA - Some of the young leaders taking part in the US-Asean Partnership Forum in Jakarta share their personal thoughts on the event, and on US-Asean ties. Here's what they have to say before the start of the three-day forum on Monday (Feb 11).

Deepu Nair, 31, Singapore Management Consultant, Frost & Sullivan

Thoughts on US-Asean relations: The US has played a critical role in shaping the post-colonial history of Asean and ensuring political stability for many of the regimes around the region. Even though the US has been surpassed in terms of trade volume by the European Union and China and Japan, it remains a large and important trading partner for Asean.

As Asean has rapidly integrated into the global economy, it's only natural that the economic fates of the US and Asean have become increasingly intertwined. One need only observe how the stock markets in the region react to any snippet of news regarding US-China trade negotiations to understand the close economic relationship between the US and Asean.

Since the Obama administration announced its pivot to Asia, ties between most Asean states and the US have generally been on an upswing. With the current administration though, US-Asean ties have been coloured by the persistent trade deficits that the US has with Asean as a whole. However, it is interesting to note that the criticism emanating from the Trump administration regarding US-Asean trade imbalances is far less pointed that it is for other regions. I believe that is a reflection of the strategic value that the US places on its relations with Asean.

I would like to see more of an emphasis on collaboration on issues relating to the digital economy. While the US-Asean Smart Cities Partnership is a good start, there is scope for more cooperation, particularly when it comes to harmonisation of technical standards and effective regulations regarding data privacy and cybersecurity.

I had the opportunity to meet with political leaders in the US as part of the Young South East Asian Leaders Initiative organised by the US Embassy. I witnessed a growing recognition amongst members of the political establishment that they've had a blind spot regarding their ties with the Asean region and have ceded ground to other powers over the last two decades or so. Fortunately, in recent times a new political consensus has emerged regarding the strategic value of deeper US-Asean relations.

I was especially impressed by the level of sophistication that younger members of the political elite exhibit in their understanding of the different political systems and cultural norms in Asean.

Thoughts ahead of the forum: I'm looking forward to discussing the role of the United States in infrastructure development for the Asean region. The US has recently announced a joint infrastructure financing programme with Australia and Japan.

It remains to be seen if the initiative can be an effective counterweight to China's One Belt One Road. In any case, the announcement is a welcome development for many Asean countries that suffer from large financing gaps for their infrastructure needs. More competition can only lead to better terms for these nations.

Piyanat Soikham, 30, Thailand Lecturer of politics and international relations, Faculty of Political Science, Ubon Ratchathani University

Thoughts on US-Asean relations: The US has always been the global superpower, playing heavily influential roles in South-east Asia, ranging from political, economic to socio-cultural aspects. US-Asean relations have become more intertwined as Asean is one of the fastest growing regional organisations - with economic opportunities, political stability and, especially, its strategic location that could possibly connect the US with Asia, the Indian Ocean rim and the Pacific.

However both the US and Asean cannot deny the fact that there are several emerging powers and multilateral engagements determining the dynamics of their relationship in this current international system.

At present, the US-Asean ties remain strong, but are not brighter than in the past. The reasons are that the US is no longer a sole superpower dominating global and regional politics, while the sense of Asean centrality has become more relevant in Asean's approach to managing its geopolitical stability, setting economic agenda, and building its own three-pillar communities.

Hence what I hope to see in the US-Asean relations in the future is mutual and equal recognition in order to establish shared prosperity and long-term friendship.

Thoughts ahead of the forum: I'm very excited and looking forward to participating in the forum, which is my first direct engagement with US foreign policy.

Since my academic focus is India-Asean relations, I hope to be able to discuss the significance of the Indo-Pacific strategy which will definitely enhance US-Asean collaboration in building a wider connectivity in these two ocean rims.

And I'm happy to learn more about different perspectives of political, economic, and social developments from other young cohorts and senior experts at the forum and share my views on Thailand's transition. Because I come from Ubon Ratchathani, the border province to Laos and Cambodia, joining this forum will offer me the great opportunity to emphasise the importance of political and economic decentralisation to create connectivity from the ground up, rather than the state-centric approach.

Jeremy Danz, 29, US Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy candidate at the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy

Thoughts on US-Asean relations: Unique relationships exist between all 10 Asean member states and the US. In some cases, the US has a historical responsibility to engage - such as further increasing support for the clearance of UXOs (unexploded ordnances), risk education, and victim assistance activities in Laos - while in other countries, there is an opportunity to strengthen long-standing security partnerships, especially with Asean member states with direct interests in the South China Sea.

Asean is a region where more active US engagement might well be welcomed, but the US must continue to commit diplomatic and other resources to maintain these relationships. Appointing a new US Ambassador to Asean would be a good place to start.

American leaders should not overlook the good feelings toward the US which exist at the local level in many South-east Asian countries, even those hosting significant levels of non-US infrastructure spending. Moving forward, I would like to see an intensification of US support for local Asean member state institutions and educational partnerships, especially successful programmes such as the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative and the Fulbright programme.

Thoughts ahead of the forum: I'm looking forward to engaging with young leaders from Asean member states and forming bonds for continued dialogue and partnership, as well as working with other young Americans who are passionate about South-east Asia and Asean. I would love to hear other attendees' thoughts regarding Asean Economic Community's implications, especially since the US' withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, as well as Asean's overall engagement with TPP-11 (what is left of the TPP after the US' withdrawal). How can the benefits from these trade programmes help support poverty alleviation in the poorest areas of Asean?

Catherine Setiawan, 29, Indonesia Regulatory Reform Adviser, Cardno International Development

Thoughts on US-Asean relations: Economically, the US, as one of the biggest economies in the world, and Asean, as one of the fastest growing economies in the world, have a very dynamic relationship. US businessmen have an interest in investing in Asean, and the people of Asean too have an interest in the US education system and tourism. It has been estimated that Asean visitors add US$5 billion to the US economy. Also, the 55,000 Asean students studying in the US add another US$1.7 billion to the US economy.

I personally am optimistic about stronger relationships between the US and Asean countries in the future. Unfortunately, I just cannot relate to and can never understand the US decision to withdraw from the TPP. In addition, Trump's absence at the Asean summit last year was also a big question mark on his commitment towards Asean and Asia in general. I hope to see more commitment towards improving the relationship with Asean countries.

Thoughts ahead of the forum: I'm so excited to hear the experts' views on US-Asean relations in the future, what the challenges are, and how to improve the relationship. I also can't wait to meet and connect with young leaders from the US and Asean countries, listening to their opinions on improving ties.

I'm thinking of discussing my perspectives on the US-Asean relationship, especially from Indonesia's point of view. And I would love to share my opinion on how the US decision to withdraw some free trade agreements is not a good decision, and could possibly hinder its relationship with Asean countries.

Sithy Rath Daravuth, 24, Cambodia Lecturer of International Studies at the Department of International Studies, Royal University of Phnom Penh

Thoughts on US-Asean ties: In an age of unprecedented populism and retreats to unilateralism, nothing is as vital as a strong commitment to multilateralism as an instrument of diplomatic engagement. I believe that US-Asean relations are imperative for both sides based on the following grounds.

First, constructive and productive US-Asean relations can generate myriad economic opportunities beneficial for citizens of both sides.

Second, there are also strong commercial links and business-to-business ties between the US and Asean under existing initiatives like the US-Asean Connect and more. In Cambodia, for instance, American companies and multinational corporations, such as Starbucks, Domino's Pizza and General Electric, are continuously investing and expanding in the country, generating numerous jobs for locals while also catering to the growing demands of many local consumers.

Executives from these companies, specifically in the field of technology, have also shared their technical know-how with many Cambodian young entrepreneurs, who are now capitalising on their newly acquired knowledge and skills to incubate digital and innovative start-ups that are significantly developing and revolutionising the national economy in preparation for Industry 4.0.

The country's growing potential in the e-commerce, e-finance, smart city solutions and other industries also present many emerging business opportunities for US tech firms and other companies.

In this Asian Century, Asean could potentially become a global economic and strategic player, so the US should not lose sight of this emerging institution in South-east Asia.

I hope to see the US upgrade its bilateral and multilateral economic relationships with Asean to strengthen regional economic cooperation, as set forth in the 2015 US-Asean Strategic Partnership.

Some policy options for the US could be upgrading the existing Trade and Investment Framework Agreements with specific Asean countries to Free Trade Agreements like the one between the US and Singapore, and developing more initiatives and programmes, as well as upgrading existing mechanisms to facilitate the process of economic integration in Asean.

I also hope to see the US enhancing its diplomatic engagements with all Asean countries without placing them in the middle of the lingering US-China competition.

In the recent State of the Union address, President Trump announced that he would meet Kim Jong Un of North Korea for the second time in a summit scheduled to be held in Vietnam in 2019. In my opinion, this is a commendable move to reaffirm America's trust of and commitment to Asean, specifically after the inception of the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (which aims to beef up US engagement in the Indo-Pacific) in December 2018.

To further commit to this act, President Trump should concentrate on conducting bilateral visits to more South-east Asian countries this year to further consolidate bilateral ties and resume President Obama's legacies while also establishing America's presence in the region. A few countries may include Cambodia, Myanmar, and Laos - all of which currently have strained relations with the US

Lastly, the US should also work on developing clear rules and procedures of engagement in its recently fashioned "Indo-Pacific concept" to avoid breeding misperceptions and distrust. Despite its ambitious strategic focus and expansive outreach, many South-east Asian leaders and civilians, including those from Cambodia, are still unclear of what this concept entails for them, so it is best for the US and their allies to agree in consensus on the principles, structures and specifics that constitute the underlying fabric of this concept. Doing so will eliminate looming ambiguities and suspicions on the part of many Asean leaders.

Thoughts ahead of the forum: First, I'm looking forward to discussing the possible areas of collaboration we can work on to strengthen the US-Asean relations in this era, and the role I, as a Pacific Forum Young Leader and a committed Asean citizen, can play in contributing to this process.

As an enthusiast of Asean, I have always envisioned this regional grouping becoming an active and viable player in the international arena, and thus I'm willing to learn from others and share my perspectives on how Asean can leverage its dialogue relations with major powers to become a relevant and renowned institution for global development in this century.

Second, I'm also eager to discuss the controversial issues hampering the relations between the US and Asean, and the possible and prudent alternatives both sides can undertake to correct any existing errors or pitfalls.

Finally, I'm also looking forward to explore ways the US and Asean can commit to multilateralism in an age of growing populism, nationalism and unilateralism. Given Asean's successes with regional economic integration and community building in the last few years, this institution without a doubt has many lessons to offer on the relevance of multilateralism in promoting growth and prosperity for an entire region.

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