Three-day US-Asean Partnership Forum kicks off in Jakarta on Monday

JAKARTA - The challenges confronting the United States and Asean - including natural disasters, the scourge of ISIS, maritime tensions and rising populism - and how both sides can work together to overcome them will be discussed at a forum, beginning on Monday (Feb 11).

More than 70 experts, foreign policy specialists and young leaders from the US and South-east Asia will gather in Jakarta for the three-day US-Asean Partnership Forum which marks 42 years of close ties between them.

It is organised by the Pacific Forum, a Honolulu-based foreign policy research institute, in partnership with the Habibie Centre, a Jakarta-based think-tank, and supported by the US Mission to Asean.

The forum will also look at other wide-ranging issues, such as development and economic integration, and innovative ways to deepen cooperation, tackle common challenges and take the US-Asean relationship forward.

"Asean has become and remains the lead convener in the Indo-Pacific region," said Pacific Forum president Robert P. Girrier.

"Our hope is that this forum will result in innovative and actionable policy recommendations that can facilitate movement toward a more peaceful, stable, and prosperous Indo-Pacific region."

The Indo-Pacific concept itself, which is still in need of clarity, will come up for discussion at the forum.

And with election fever gripping South-east Asia, the hot topic of democracy in the region will be the subject of a panel discussion chaired by Mr Ravi Velloor, Associate Editor of The Straits Times, on Wednesday. The Straits Times is one of the forum's media partners.

Young leaders from diverse fields will get the chance to have their say, and rub shoulders with officials and senior experts.

At another session on Wednesday, these young leaders will discuss the fates and futures of the US and Asean, and give their take on how both sides can work together to overcome challenges and deepen ties.

The 25 participants from the Pacific Forum Young Leaders Programme will also be hosted by the US Mission to Asean on Monday to a dialogue on US policy towards Asean, and will take part in a roundtable discussion with Mr Kung Phoak, an Asean deputy secretary-general, and other senior officials from the Asean Secretariat.

Mr Kung is in charge of the Asean Socio-Cultural Community, overseeing the implementation of projects that focus on forging a common identity and building an inclusive society.

It is the largest and most diverse delegation of young leaders that the Pacific Forum has included in any senior-level regional dialogue in the past five years at least.

And they have come armed with great expectations and ideas, and eager to start discussions on a broad swathe of topics, from infrastructure to trade.

This will be Ubon Ratchathani University lecturer Piyanat Soikham's first direct engagement with US foreign policy.

The 30-year-old from Thailand, whose academic focus is India-Asean relations, is hoping to tackle the significance of the Indo-Pacific strategy, which he believes will enhance US-Asean collaboration.

Mr Deepu Nair, noting that the US recently announced a joint infrastructure financing programme with Australia and Japan, is looking forward to discussing the US' role in infrastructure development for the Asean region.

"It remains to be seen if the initiative can be an effective counterweight to China's One Belt One Road," said the 31-year-old from Singapore, who works as a management consultant at Frost & Sullivan. He was referring to the Belt and Road Initiative, China's development strategy to revive ancient sea and land trade routes linking Africa, Europe and Asia.

"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," he added.

The young leaders are optimistic about the positive momentum in US-Asean ties, but hope to see more done to strengthen these bonds.

Mr Jeremy Danz, a Master's candidate at the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy in the US, says the US must continue to commit diplomatic resources, among other things, to maintain relationships with the Asean nations. The appointment of a new US Ambassador to Asean - there has not been a full-fledged ambassador since 2017 - would be a good start, said the 29-year-old.

Mr Sithy Rath Daravuth, 24, a lecturer of international studies at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, suggested that US President Donald Trump could conduct bilateral visits to more South-east Asian countries this year to further consolidate bilateral ties.

During the forum, Ms Catherine Setiawan, 29, from Indonesia, hopes to share her thoughts on the US' decision to withdraw from trade pacts like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and how this might hinder its relationship with Asean countries.

The regulatory reform adviser added: "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, and listen to their opinions on improving ties."

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