The Case for an ASEAN Caucus in the US Congress

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by Asad Latif
Every state in the US has hundreds, if not thousands, of jobs supported by exports to ASEAN. Image: ASEAN Matters for America, 2014.

During an ASEAN Committee meeting in Washington DC at the end of May, Indonesia made a proposal to establish an ASEAN caucus in the US Congress as an added means to cement ties between the two sides. Such a caucus should enhance the already extensive economic and other ties binding the United States and the region, and the proposal is therefore expected to receive commensurate political support, particularly with the ASEAN Economic Community so close to realization.

The economic facts make a strong case for deeper institutional links. According to Antara news agency, cited in The Jakarta Post, Indonesian Ambassador to the US Budibowo Leksono noted that only 26% of Congress members pay close attention to ASEAN in spite of its impact on the American economy. ASEAN is America’s fourth-largest trading partner after Canada, Mexico and China, while the US is ASEAN’s third-largest trading partner – a relationship that creates about 560,000 jobs for Americans. Indeed, investments by ASEAN members in the US rose by more than an astonishing 1,440 per cent to US$27.5 billion in 2012, up from US$1.8 billion in 2001. The ambassador added that about 47,000 students from ASEAN countries studied in the US in the 2012-2013 academic year, contributing more than US$1.4 billion to the host economy.

Given these links, a Congressional Caucus would provide a focused, consistent and continuous forum for interaction between American legislators and ASEAN officials. Much as caucuses along national lines seek to keep the nations concerned high on the congressional agenda, a caucus for ASEAN would alert legislators to the significance of developments in the organization for the United States, and vice versa. Visibility is a key benefit given that dozens of foreign policy issues vie for congressional attention at any given time, the natural state of affairs for a superpower that has interests in every corner of the world. Also, the caucus would provide a useful mechanism for reaching out to Congressmen who are heavily focused on domestic issues. Some of these lawmakers do not realize how important ASEAN is to the economic well-being of their constituents in a globalized economy.

ASEAN law and policy expert Edmund Sim notes another advantage for the US in having a Congressional Caucus devoted to the association. Mr Sim, an American international trade lawyer and partner in the trade boutique firm, Appleton Luff, based in Singapore since 1997, writes in The Establishment Post that the caucus would allow US legislators “continued access to Asean members without having to go through bilateral channels”. This might help them bypass political sensitivities in the event of a hiccup in bilateral relations between the US and an ASEAN country. At such times, most US politicians may not want to engage the country publicly, but engaging it through the ASEAN caucus would provide “political cover for continued dialogue”.

Certain caveats are necessary. An ASEAN caucus should not duplicate the work of country-based caucuses in Washington, for example the Philippine Caucus in Congress; or the ASEAN Washington Committee, composed of the ambassadors of ASEAN member-states resident in the US capital. This committee’s meetings with senior American officials already serve as an important venue for communication and collaboration on a range of issues and projects, and should continue. The addition of an ASEAN Caucus would provide the committee with an institutional means of reaching out to Congress, complementing its own role of acting as a bridge to officialdom. On the whole, therefore, the Indonesian proposal for an ASEAN Congressional caucus is a well-advised move.

Asad Latif is a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) in Singapore.