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English: Ernest Bower

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Ernest Bower, Senior Adviser & Director of the Southeast Asia Program, testified before the U.S.-China Economic & Security Review Commission yesterday 4th February 2012. The main thrust of the briefing are:

Over the last 15 years through its expanding trade, investment, tourism and cultural ties, China has transformed its image from an ideological and security threat to an engaged and interested partner. In addition, China maintains a continued presence through its cooperation with ASEAN, Free Trade Agreements, aid and other forms of engagement. According to Ernest Bower, the US, despite having a longer and much established presence through trade, investment, aid as well as security presence, doesn’t appear to have a strategy whereas the China appears to be pursuing its own “Monroe Doctrine” to carve the region as its sphere of influence.

As such he recommends a multi-pronged and clarified US strategy towards ASEAN. This would include focusing on trade and investment, strengthening its existing treaty alliances, building on the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), joining new partnerships such as the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and developing new and privileged relationships with selected members of ASEAN.

I find two main problems with Bower’s testimony. The first and most glaring is the absence of the mention of the East Asia Summit (EAS). This omission is indeed puzzling particularly as the US recently joined the EAS in the much publicized EAS Summit in Bali last November. It is also strange because within ASEAN, there is an acceptance that the EAS would guide the strategic features of the regional architecture.

The other problem relates to his assertion that the ASEAN members are guided by a perspective of balancing between the US and China. This is the opposite of bandwagoning, the other IR theory that explains how states seek to manage the power asymmetry that arises out of the policies and actions of major powers. However neither theory explains ASEAN’s strategies satisfactorily. The failure of these theories is partly due to ASEAN’s politically heterogeneous nature.  As such, the most sensible option for ASEAN is to employ a mix of strategies that would satisfy its members.

Bandwagoning strategies are in fact the building blocks of ASEAN’s DNA which finds expression in its diplomatic instruments such as the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN) and the Southeast Asian Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone (SEANWFZ).  However rather than using these instruments to balance or bandwagon with the major powers or as a wall to shield itself from them, ASEAN believes that the best strategy is to deal with the major powers on an equal basis so as to allow them to pursue their legitimate strategies in an orderly manner and thus encourage an orderly major power relationship.