The United States has said it remains committed to economic engagement with ASEAN, despite the reorienting of its foreign policy under President Donald Trump and his decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
Speaking to Brunei media on Thursday, Daniel Shields, the interim chargé d’affaires at the US Mission to ASEAN, said President Trump’s upcoming visit to the region is an opportunity to “advance the excellent relationship” between the US and ASEAN.
“When the Trump administration came in I think everyone was looking for signals about where the United States was planning to go in terms of its engagement with ASEAN,” he said during a presser at the US Embassy in Bandar Seri Begawan. “I think the first indication that the United States would have a strong focus on ASEAN was when Vice-President Pence visited Jakarta in April, and visited the [ASEAN] Secretariat.”
Since Pence’s April visit, other key officials – Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis — have also paid visits to Southeast Asia for various ASEAN-led forums.
President Trump is slated to meet Southeast Asian leaders at the US-ASEAN Commemorative Summit in Manila, Philippines on November 13. The trip is part of a wider tour of Asia that will see the president also visit Vietnam for the APEC Summit, Japan, South Korea and China.
According to the White House, Trump’s discussions will focus on creating a free and open Indo-Pacific region, emphasising the importance of “fair and reciprocal economic ties with America’s trading partners”.
However the president’s decision back in January to withdraw from the TPP — an Asia Pacific-wide free trade agreement championed by the Obama administration — represented a major pivot in US trade policy, casting uncertainty over America’s economic and strategic relationship with the region.
Ambassador Shields said TPP was “never an ASEAN-focused initiative” — although four ASEAN economies, including Brunei, are members of the 12-country pact — and that US-ASEAN trade will be boosted by further ASEAN economic integration.
Shields cited the ASEAN Single Window — the digitisation of customs clearance and trade within the region — as an initiative where the two parties have been working together, with the US providing USD$10 million in technical assistance.
“ASEAN countries have already invested USD$250 million in this… [It’s one of the] ways the United States can support the economic integration within ASEAN,” he said. “It is beneficial to US companies that want to trade and do business with the region.”
The envoy, who previously served as the US ambassador to Brunei, added that Southeast Asia remains the “favoured destination” for American foreign direct investment.
“If you look at US cumulative FDI in ASEAN up to 2015 it was over USD$270 billion. To put that into perspective, US FDI in ASEAN is bigger that US investment in Japan, China, Republic of Korea and India combined.”
Under President Obama, the US pumped millions into programmes to support ASEAN SMEs and the capacity-building of young entrepreneurs.
But their efforts are quickly being outpaced by China, who is aggressively courting Southeast Asia with huge investment in major infrastructure projects such as ports, roads, and railways that will drive growth, while creating an influential role for Chinese-backed development banks and businesses.
Just last month Chinese company Hengyi Industries pledged a further USD$12 billion in FDI to Brunei, after already sinking USD$4 billion for the initial development of the Pulau Muara Besar refinery and petrochemical plant.
China’s bid to create the regional economic architecture falls under its “One Belt, One Road” initiative — an ambitious plan to finance around USD$100 billion per year of infrastructure projects around the world. The objective is to deepen economic ties with Europe, Africa, and Asia by underwriting a network of global trade with China at its center.