US envoy on US-Asean ties and China

There continues to be this perception that the US is not engaged sufficiently in the region. What is your response to that?

I’ve had this job for more than two years. This will be my fifth trip to Manila. I’ve been to Indonesia four times. I’ve been to Malaysia three times.

I’ve been to Thailand three times; Vietnam three times too. And I’ve also been to Singapore so many times, I forget how many. So you know, I have really spent a lot of time in South-east Asia.

The perception is to some extent an anachronism. It stems from the view that somehow we were not engaged during the financial crisis of the late 1990s. In fact, we’ve been very engaged with these countries, especially bilaterally, but also more recently with Asean as a whole. We have a robust programme of economic and security engagement, and visits.

I can assure you that Secretary Rice would rather be in Manila than in some of the places she’s going to…There is no question that the stakes in Iraq and Afghanistan are very high, as are the stakes in overall Middle East peace. And understandably, I think our leaders need to be very much focused on that. But because they’re focusing on that doesn’t mean they are neglecting Asean.

What does the disaster relief operations entail?

Given the number of natural disasters in the region, we thought it was time to see if ARF forces could work together. This will take a lot of planning because some of the ARF forces have not had the opportunity to work together. So if successful, this will be the first time it has done something like this.

We could implement this within 18 months. The idea is to strengthen the ARF by actual cooperation on the ground. The ARF can and will do more. We don’t want to be doing the same things in the ARF 10 years from now. That’s why we think it’s time that we try to do some actual exercises with forces.

Is China winning by default for influence of Asean because the US is not as engaged as it should be in the region?

We don’t believe that more China means less US. We think China can be – and indeed has been – an engine of development in South-east Asia. If you look at the growth of some of the countries of Asean, it’s been caused by the economic growth in China.

There is plenty of room for all of us. And we don’t see China as a “winner”. China is engaged as it should be. To talk about winners and losers in that way is to really think in a very 19th century form. China has a role to play.

South-east Asian countries can chart their own course without taking anyone else’s system as their model. I do expect these countries to welcome both the US and China in the region.

We want to work more closely with China on development assistance. We think it’s very important that as donors we try to coordinate as much as possible.

And this involves donor transparency to explain what it is they’re really trying to do. Many donors in the past have provided assistance often for political purposes, and that kind of thing will continue. But to the extent that donors are interested in economic development, we’d like to see if we can do more together.

You mentioned that Burma (Myanmar) was a drain on the ability to forge a consensus in Asean. How do you see Asean forging ahead then with Burma still hanging on?

If you look at Burma, there is no question everybody sees a human rights problem. But everyone should also be seeing a large country that takes up a lot of real estate in the region, that has strategic importance to big powers, that has economic importance. And so, I think there is a logic to having Burma fall into a – if we can use the term – Asean space. I don’t think Burma can be off on its own.

Asean needs to deal with a problem posed by a country that doesn’t want to play by the rules that everyone plays by. And so, Asean’s consensus-driven decision-making is put to the challenge. It’s a big challenge…Asean has been very patient and accommodating to Burma…But I think the fact that Asean is looking at this charter suggests that it feels it can do more with some different rules.

The US is prepared to have a dialogue with Burma. We recently had a dialogue with members of the Burmese government in Beijing. Our problem is that Burma doesn’t like to hear what we tell them. So it’s not a misunderstanding; it’s disagreement that we’re dealing with.

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