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As U.S. Envoy to ASEAN

John Lee

The appointment of David Carden as America’s permanent ambassador to ASEAN has generated rumblings of discontent amongst Asian hands in Washington’s policy community. A productive American relationship with ASEAN, particularly when it joins the East Asia Summit as a full member in 2011, is critical to stability in an increasingly tense region.

As a top securities lawyer and Democratic Party fundraiser, Carden is unknown to “Asia hands” in Washington’s vibrant policy community. But his limited experience of diplomacy in the region need not be a permanent obstacle. The key for America’s newest ambassador in the region is to rapidly learn the unwritten realities of competition in the region.

As a lawyer, Carden’s instinct is to begin looking for the written laws and rules of interaction in the region. Unfortunately, he will not find many and will need to go beyond his legal training if he is to be effective.

The rise of multilateralism in Asia is broadly driven by two things. The first is functional ? and this is where Carden’s legal training will serve him well. Multilateralism in the region is largely a result of increased economic integration between Asian states. The region is looking for solutions to functional obstacles in order to improve economic regionalism and have come up with a series of laws, rules and agreements to improve economic functionality. The multilateral currency swap arrangement of the Chiang Mai Initiative between ASEAN Plus Three members is one notable example of this.

But multilateralism in Asia is also about managing and regulating security competition in the region: between great powers, between great powers and smaller ones, and between smaller powers themselves. For example, China has long used ASEAN mechanisms to both convince the region about the credibility of its ‘peaceful rise’ and attempt to exclude America from future regional architecture in order to enhance Beijing’s future strategic voice and weight ? a completely legitimate strategy. ASEAN members have long used ASEAN as a way of regulating competition amongst themselves as a vehicle to help “socialize” rising powers such as China, and to maximise the collective leverage of these relatively small states vis-a-vis giants such as the US, China, Japan and India.

Although ASEAN is often criticized as a “talk shop,” it has nevertheless played an important role in providing a relatively neutral forum for the great powers to meet, and in regulating strategic competition and the contest for regional influence. By encouraging great powers to compete for influence within existing and new multilateral forums, competition is contained and a precarious stability is maintained. In the absence of a prescribed multilateral setting, competition for regional influence could become much more unrestrained and unpredictable.

Yet, few countries in the region are fooled by ASEAN’s limitations. Indeed, existing ASEAN-led multilateral forums have the perhaps unintended virtue of being relevant and useful enough to encourage great powers to compete within this setting yet are not so rigid or comprehensive that they get in the way of countries seeking parallel agreements in underpinning their own security and hedging strategies.

Indeed, with China becoming more assertive in the Yellow, East China and South China Seas in 2010, key capitals have deepened their security arrangements with Washington. The deepening of existing and new bilateral security relationships is conveniently compatible with ASEAN’s “weak” multilateral processes.

America has usually done bilateral relationships well in Asia. Less impressive has been Washington’s appreciation of how to compete using a multilateral strategy, as China does, and why a multilateral approach is complementary to American and regional security interests. But signing the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, becoming a permanent member of the EAS in 2011, and appointing a stand-alone ambassador to ASEAN, who will be based in Indonesia, are encouraging signs that the Barack Obama administration is learning.

This is where Carden comes in. The ambassador is not an Asia-expert but he has close relations with President Obama, which means he will have influence in the White House. But he needs to leave behind legal instincts that seek clarity and comprehensiveness in the region’s rules and laws.

Rather than become frustrated by the slow-moving multilateral processes in the region, he should see them as one-way competition is regulated and constrained in Asia. Rather than dismiss the non-binding nature of ASEAN processes as ineffective, he should realize that working through them is one way Washington can both reassure the region that it will remain engaged as a partner and first-among-equals rather than as a bullying and impatient superpower.

American security alliances and partnerships in Asia are being strengthened. Hard power is critical. But Carden’s mission is to ensure that American power also has a softer, nuanced and more subtle face in the region.

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