The US Capitol [Image: ttarasiuk / Creative Commons - CC BY 2.0]

Congress Seeks to Deepen Southeast Asia Ties with Comprehensive Bill


In the midst of a busy session, Congress is setting its focus on a region of increasing economic and diplomatic importance—Southeast Asia.

The Southeast Asia Strategy Act of 2021 (H.R. 1083) passed out of the House of Representatives in late April with clear bipartisan support. The bill, authored by Congresswoman Ann Wagner (MO-02) and co-sponsored by Congressman Joaquin Castro (TX-20), would prompt the United States to take meaningful steps to deepen relations with Southeast Asia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The lawmakers’ efforts come at a time of increasing US economic and security integration in the Indo-Pacific. With an expanded US-ASEAN relationship, Southeast Asia has the potential of becoming a vital pillar of the America’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy. As Representative Wagner noted in her press release, “a secure and independent Southeast Asia greatly benefits the United States and contributes to the prosperity of our local economies.”

Specifically, the Southeast Asia Strategy Act directs the State Department and other federal agencies to outline and detail specific strategies to engage Southeast Asia and ASEAN. These efforts include ongoing and planned initiatives to expand alliances, partnerships, and multilateral engagements through trade, investment, and development. The bill’s passage out of the House received support from outside organizations, such as the US-ASEAN Business Council and the Borgen Project.

With the fifth largest economy in the world, ASEAN serves as a vital partner to the United States, both at the federal and local level. The United States exports around $105 billion in goods and services to ASEAN countries, and the bloc serves as America’s fourth largest trading partner. Southeast Asia’s economic growth trends also attract American investors. ASEAN is the top destination for US direct foreign investment, totaling $400 billion in projects.

The significance of the US-ASEAN partnership extends to local communities as well. For example, Missouri and Texas, Representatives Wagner’s and Castro’s home states, respectively, see a combined $16 billion in exports to ASEAN, supporting over 80,000 domestic jobs. Given the significant US ties to ASEAN countries, H.R. 1083 would prompt the United States to take meaningful steps to follow through with a comprehensive strategy for the region, expanding the opportunities for local engagement with Southeast Asia.

The bill serves as a potential stepping stone to a greater congressional strategy for engagement with Southeast Asian countries. The bipartisan US-ASEAN Congressional Caucus, established in 2017, represents another such component and is aimed at establishing concrete ties with ASEAN states through congressional channels. Representatives Wagner and Castro serve as caucus founders and co-chairs and continue to signal their commitment to US engagement in the region through their sponsorship of H.R. 1083, which establishes an official blueprint for US-ASEAN relations. As the Southeast Asia Strategy Act makes its way through the Senate, the United States moves closer to stronger economic and diplomatic relations with an essential network of key countries.

Isabel Ayala is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. She is a senior at the University of Texas at Austin concentrating in Asian Studies and Government.