In light of next week's upcoming summit between the United States and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as well as the ninth annual East Asia Summit, the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs sat down with Marc Mealy, Vice President of Policy for the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council, to discuss U.S.-ASEAN relations and the implications of recent developments in the Southeast Asia region.
GJIA: What role does the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council play in facilitating U.S.-ASEAN relations?
MM: The U.S.-ASEAN Business Council is a trade association of American companies that do business in the ten countries that make up the ASEAN region. The association is actually celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. We are the only non-Asian entity that is actually formally written into the ASEAN Charter, a reflection of our long history of supporting U.S.-ASEAN cooperation in terms of trade, investment, and technology. The organization works with companies to support their international government relations work in the region. We also do advocacy in the region to encourage policies that are conducive to economic growth and development. We support U.S. companies and try to conclude transactions, whether of a trade or investment nature.
Many of the projects that we are focusing on these days are tied to the fact that the ten countries of ASEAN are in the process of trying to form an ASEAN Economic Community. The form this community would take is not to be confused with the European Union (EU); these nations have learned lessons from Europe and don’t want to make similar mistakes. Nonetheless, this ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) will be launched on December 31, 2015. The U.S.-ASEAN Business Council has been doing projects to support initiatives that support the development of small and medium-sized enterprises (SME) in the region because, for this AEC to be a good tool for growth and development, it is very important that ASEAN small businesses be able to take advantage of these opportunities. For the region to be globally competitive, ASEAN must create policy frameworks at the regional level that allow the movement of goods, services, capital investment, and skills and labor. We have also been talking to ASEAN about the importance of making sure that the member states create a framework that allows data and information—which are really the currency of the 21st century—to be able to move freely across borders in the region. We believe that ASEAN doing this well will make the AEC as successful as possible.
GJIA: Can you elaborate on the differences between the AEC and the EU?
MM: ASEAN, as a group of countries, has made it very clear that the AEC is a unique undertaking with some fundamental differences from the EU. First and foremost, the ten ASEAN countries have vastly different political systems. Second, they have varying levels of development. The idea of all ten countries being similar and operating in similar ways and, because of this, eventually merging into a singular union is therefore not very realistic. These countries understand that. There is a real recognition that, for the AEC to be success, conscious decisions will have to be made about how the AEC will help close some of the development gaps that exist between the more advanced countries—like Malaysia and Singapore—versus Cambodia, Laos, or Myanmar. It will also be important to make sure that the AEC helps close income gaps between rural and urban populations in certain countries, and that it help further reduce poverty in all ten. There’s a recognition that these initiatives associated with the AEC have to be conscious investments or policy reforms. They recognize that change is not going to happen naturally, and that concrete steps will have to be taken to make sure that the AEC is able to help all of ASEAN’s least-developed country (LDC) nations, to utilize the AEC to support their economic growth and development objectives.
GJIA: Recently, the ASEAN countries have been called upon to step up on initiatives that address climate change. What has been done to address these concerns?
MM: ASEAN countries certainly recognize that climate change is a global issue. They—along with countries of the Asia-Pacific region more broadly—are growing fast, with lots of industrial development. As their citizens buy more cars, they are, in a sense, increasing their contribution to global warming, and some of them have been significantly impacted by it. As we have seen, the Asia-Pacific region oftentimes suffers from cataclysmic natural disasters, which can be byproducts of global warming. So ASEAN realizes it has a role to play, but so too does the global community. The U.S. government, for instance, has been supporting initiatives to promote more renewable energy development, particularly more sustainable agricultural practices, which, often, still involve a lot of burning. The U.S government’s major energy initiative is actively supported by many members of the business community. The reality of the Asia-Pacific region, however, is that coal still remains the primary source of fuel for most of those nations’ economies. That is not going to change overnight, but if people start seeing the value of using cleaner coal technologies and renewable sources we may see a decrease in the use of fossil fuels.
GJIA: Despite having been a member for 17 years, this is Myanmar/Burma’s first year chairing ASEAN. How has the country approached this new role, and what challenges has it had to overcome?
MM: Myanmar/Burma has gone through a significant political transition process, from a government that was officially led by the military to a government that is more civilian-controlled—that is, many of its officials are former members of the military who have taken off their uniforms. Needless to say, that process, along with some of the other fundamental challenges that are facing the country, have allowed Myanmar to move forward in some ways, albeit in a nonlinear fashion. At the same time, they still face huge challenges in terms of trying to evolve the political process, develop ceasefires with the different ethnic groups that the military has had long-running internal civil wars with, and bring some resolution to those conflicts. As an LDC in ASEAN, Myanmar/Burma will continue to face challenges associated with less-developed nations. That process of change and evolution will take years.
As the 2014 Chair of ASEAN, though, they have done a pretty good job. It is not easy for less-developed countries in the region to take on the various logistical roles and responsibilities of serving as chairman. Meetings have to be organized, and foreign leaders and key foreign officials visit the country often. Later this year, Myanmar/Burma will host the U.S.-ASEAN Leaders Summit as well as the East Asia Summit. Even President Obama will be going. For a relatively poor country, they have done a fairly good job as Chairman.
Additionally, a developing country, Myanmar has used its position as ASEAN Chair to make progress in addressing the fundamental development challenges that are still faced by poorer and smaller countries in the ASEAN region. Myanmar’s Chairmanship is characterized by a development agenda focused on ensuring that, as the ASEAN region moves forward, initiatives and reforms that countries in the region can support are implemented to help close the development gaps between large, wealthy ASEAN countries and their smaller, less-developed counterparts. Inclusion has been a key theme of Myanmar’s Chairmanship, trying to emphasize the importance of investing in infrastructure to help the LDC countries better connect to both other countries in the region and to national markets. They are trying to focus on things that have a bigger development impact within the region. These are the things that are important to Myanmar as a nation, so why not include those as Chairman of ASEAN?
GJIA: What does President Obama’s “pivot to Asia” mean for Southeast Asia? Will we be seeing any changes in U.S. foreign policy towards Burma or Southeast Asia during the upcoming summits?
MM: A key dimension of the Obama administration’s “pivot” or “rebalance" towards Asia is that it fundamentally requires greater engagement with Southeast Asia. A strategic dimension of this policy pivot includes engaging with the ten countries of Southeast Asia. Since the recent political change in Myanmar, the U.S. government has undertaken a number of efforts to try to remove previous policies—in the form of economic sanctions and other, similar measures—that were put in place when the country was controlled by a military government. This has been a significant change in the U.S.-Myanmar bilateral relationship. The fact that President Obama went to Myanmar earlier this year—and the fact that he will go back later this year—is a symbol of how that relationship has changed.
The question is whether the political processes of democratic change in Myanmar will continue enough to warrant continued policy changes from the United States to develop a stronger relationship with Myanmar. Will the United States reward positive change with more engagement? If things don’t continue to change, will it penalize that situation with less engagement? So far, the Obama administration’s stance has been that gradual positive change—because change is rarely a linear process—is best protected through continued incentives that slowly increase American engagement to reward and encourage. The president’s return trip to Myanmar later this year will probably be an opportunity to gauge how things are changing, where there may be challenges or problems, and whether the U.S. government should try to further engage Myanmar positively or signal displeasure with what is going on in the country. Myanmar is scheduled to have elections next year, which will be one measure. The country is also trying to bring ceasefires to some of the ongoing military conflicts within its borders, which will be another. The American government will likely monitor Myanmar’s rule of law, freedom of the press, and other similar measures to see if things are getting better. The president’s visit will signal that the U.S. is trying to encourage more positive change.
GJIA: China remains ASEAN’s number one trading partner. How have recent geopolitical developments in the South China Sea affected the Sino-ASEAN relationship?
MM: The China-ASEAN trade relationship has continued to grow. Different countries are trading different products with China, while China is exporting different products to different markets in Southeast Asia. Both sides see the benefits of increased trade. At the same time, territorial disputes in the South China Sea have put a damper on bilateral relations with China for some countries in ASEAN. The relationship between the Philippines and China has probably become the most strained because of the territorial dispute issues. Vietnam’s bilateral relationship with China has also taken a hit. Even Myanmar-Chinese relations have experienced recent tensions—not so much because of issues of territory or disputes over the South China Sea questions but because one of the underlying factors for political change in Myanmar has been a growing awareness in Myanmar that the country’s relationship with China was becoming too one-sidedly Chinese-centric. Some political leaders in Myanmar see value in establishing a more diverse set of bilateral economic relationships, and have pursued political change to help make that happen. As a result, Myanmar has developed bilateral relationships with Europe, Latin America, and other countries in Asia to balance out its relations with China. So while territorial issues between China and individual ASEAN countries have generated new challenges, those challenges vary across the region. Not all countries have been as adversely impacted as the Philippines or Vietnam. But despite those challenges, from a trade and investment point of view China-ASEAN economic relations are continuing to grow significantly.
GJIA: How have both societal secularism and religious fundamentalism surfaced in Southeast Asia?
MM: Even in Southeast Asian countries with significant Muslim populations like Indonesia and Malaysia, secular diversity and the nature of government in those societies has done a good job of minimizing the rise of extremist forms of religion. Religion itself, however, is becoming a more popular, relevant, and growing phenomenon in Southeast Asian society. As these countries become more developed and integrated into the global economy, religion is increasingly becoming an important part of maintaining one’s unique culture and history. Although there have been isolated incidents in particular countries, this growing influence of religion has not been accompanied by a significant growth in religious extremism. The rise of extremism is linked to unique circumstances or factors present in a country that are conducive to religious radicalism: issues of politics, economics, access to resources, and other variables that are just as important as religious differences among people within a certain geographic area. It would be insufficient analysis to simply assume that instances of religious extremism in Southeast Asia reflect the idea that global extremism has struck the region; we need to look at the overall environment and understand that there are probably other dynamics going on as well that may be making certain areas of certain countries home to more extremist religious views.
Marc Mealy has served as the Vice President of Policy with the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council since 2010. He joined the Council as the Senior Director for Malaysia, Philippines, and Brunei Affairs in 2003. Mealy previously served in the U.S. Department of Agriculture Foreign Service, where he managed some of USDA’s largest commodity trade finance and food assistance programs.
Marc Mealy was interviewed by Elaine Li on 6 October 2014 in Washington, D.C. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.