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Feb 27, 2023 | In The News

WASHINGTON – An upcoming Partner with Asean Act seeks to raise the formal status of Asean to bring it in line with other groupings like the European Union. The legislation will have to be passed by Congress; Asean watchers are hopeful it will pass, and confident that when it does, US President Joe Biden will sign it into law.

The upcoming Act would authorise the designation of the South-east Asian grouping as an international organisation with diplomatic privileges and immunities consistent with the International Organisations Immunities Act.

It is intended to underscore US respect for Asean centrality, and establish a legal framework to allow the United States and Asean to explore new areas of cooperation.

It was co-authored by Democrat Congressman Joaquin Castro from Texas and Republican Congresswoman Young Kim from California. Both sit on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Mr Castro is also the founder and co-chair of the House US-Asean Caucus.

Besides bipartisan political support, the Bill has drawn endorsement from a range of organisations including the powerful US Chamber of Commerce in Washington DC.

The US grants the EU and the African Union full diplomatic privileges and immunities, but Asean does not yet receive the same treatment. This Bill would address that and extend full diplomatic privileges and immunities to Asean. Officials from the Asean Secretariat would be eligible for diplomatic visas when they travel to the US.

Analysts and observers say the legislation is overdue.


Mr Castro told The Straits Times in an e-mail: “The US-Asean relationship is strong and moving in a positive direction.”

“Providing Asean with routine diplomatic privileges and immunities under US law is an important part of that process of improving relations,” he wrote.

“It is my hope that the Partner with Asean Act will underscore US respect for Asean centrality and establish a strong legal framework that allows us to explore new areas of cooperation.”

The US Chamber of Commerce has been calling for more US economic engagement with Asean, and improvements to the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) launched by the US in May 2022.

Though widely welcomed in the Indo-Pacific, the IPEF was also seen as not quite making up for the US’ abrupt unilateral pullout from the ambitious Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) under then President Donald Trump in 2017.

“Today we have trade deals with 20 countries, and it has been 10 years since we’ve added a single new partner to that list,” said Ms Suzanne Clark, president and chief executive of the US Chamber of Commerce, on Jan 12 at the chamber’s State of American Business event.

“Meanwhile, other countries have inked 100 new trade deals without us,” she added. “I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: If you are standing still, you are falling behind.”

She urged the Biden administration to also “aim higher” on the Indo-Pacific initiative.

“We applaud the administration for launching IPEF, but we need an ambitious outcome – with strong rules on digital trade and, crucially, market access,” she said.

In an interview with ST, Mr John Goyer, executive director of South-east Asia at the US Chamber of Commerce, said: “I think it’s encouraging when you hear the administration talk about Asean centrality; whether it’s matters pertaining to maritime disputes or the situation in Myanmar, and other… broader Asian regional issues… there is a recognition and a belief of Asean centrality.”

He acknowledged that “it was a strategic mistake to withdraw from the TPP, and I think that has fed some of these perceptions in the region about US disengagement”.

But, regardless of worries over economic engagement, Asean is doing “spectacularly well” in its economic relationship with the US, Mr Goyer added.  

Trade data out earlier in February showed that US imports from Asean were US$337 billion (S$451 billion) – about 10 per cent of the US’ total imports.

The growth in imports used to be 18 per cent year on year, Mr Goyer noted, but this has doubled since 2017.

“China may be Asean’s largest trading partner, but we are the largest investor and that (investment) has also grown rapidly,” he said.

“The region accounts for 5 per cent of total outbound US investment worldwide. But it accounts for 10 per cent of sales by US foreign affiliates on the ground, which means that it’s both productive investment and presumably quite lucrative as well.”

Mr Goyer added: “So Asean does really punch above its weight in that respect. And US companies also play an important role in linking Asean with regional and global supply chains.”

US companies are generating about a fifth of the region’s total exports of goods and services, he said.

A congressional aide, who asked not to be named, said the Bill is an important step in protocol terms, and hopefully, it will also smooth the way for better dialogue and cooperation.

“Asean centrality and the importance of the Asean-led… mechanisms, including the East Asia Summit, is something that Congress strongly supports, and we’ve seen a lot of strong support for continuing to upgrade the relationship.”


The Straits Times

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