On June 8, 2023, the Mansfield Foundation hosted the first in-person event of its Capitol Hill Asia Policy Dialogues series since 2020. The event, titled “ASEAN Centrality Today and Moving Forward,” was held in the Rayburn House Office Building. Ambassador Ted Osius, President & CEO of the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council and Former U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam, moderated the discussion, which highlighted two panelists: Elina Noor, Senior Fellow of the Asia Program at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Clara Gillispie, Senior Advisor at the National Bureau of Asian Research.
The discussion focused on the significance of ASEAN Centrality – a concept emphasizing the multilateral organization as a dominant regional platform to overcome common challenges and engage with external powers. Amb. Osius underscored the significant economic potential of ASEAN, citing its population of 680 million and $3.2 trillion economy, which is poised to become the 4th largest in the world. He also raised the challenges of political instability, including issues in Myanmar and the state of democratization in countries like Indonesia, Cambodia, and Thailand.
Ms. Gillispie echoed Osius’s views on ASEAN’s relevance, further stressing its vital role as a platform for addressing diverse regional issues, particularly concerning climate change. She discussed ASEAN’s importance for U.S. firms, including Small- and Medium-Sized Enterprises (SMEs), due to its considerable consumer base and its leadership in the digital realm. Gillispie also elaborated on the importance of U.S. legislation like the BUILD ACT, the potential future trajectory of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), and the need for more avenues the U.S. can utilize to engage with the region.
While discussing ASEAN’s position in global affairs, Ms. Noor argued that ASEAN’s location lends it significant strategic importance. It serves as an interaction point for major powers and holds a unique diplomatic role, as evidenced by the inclusion of North Korea in the ASEAN Regional Forum. Moreover, she addressed the complexities of U.S.-ASEAN relations, suggesting that the U.S. intermittently prioritizes ASEAN when it faces problems or has new interests, as evidenced by past geopolitical tensions and current U.S.-China relations. Noor also addressed the ongoing crisis in Myanmar, suggesting the importance of ASEAN’s Five Point Consensus as a crucial yet flawed framework for resolving the situation.
During the Q&A session, the discussion revolved around several topics, including the potential extension of Indonesia’s ASEAN chairmanship, the economic shift of companies from China to ASEAN countries, the possibility of new Free Trade Agreements between the U.S. and ASEAN, and the perception of the Quad within ASEAN. The session further addressed the impact of differing economic statuses of ASEAN countries on their cohesion and the potential risks and benefits of mini-lateral alliances within the region.