The Brookings Institution
Good afternoon everyone. It’s great to be back at Brookings. This was my place for six years, and since my mother and I both worked here for so long, it really has the feel of home. This is where I met so many gracious and insightful colleagues, whom I still turn to for guidance and support. And of course, working here was the last time I got a full 7 hours of sleep. So I’m especially nostalgic. Strobe and Martin, thank you for inviting me to participate today.
I’m honored to be here with Foreign Minister Shanmugam. President Obama and I met with Prime Minister Lee at the White House a few months ago to affirm the excellent partnership between Singapore and the United States. And, I think it’s fitting that Brookings’ new Chair in Southeast Asian Studies is named for Singapore’s founding father, a man who has played such a key role in shaping the region’s growth, Lee Kuan Yew.
In many ways, Singapore embodies the arc of development that nations across Southeast Asia are achieving. The people of Southeast Asia are increasingly connected—to each other and to the global economy. Entrenched dictatorships have given way to new democracies, and throughout the region, citizens are playing a greater role in their government and civil life. As President Obama said in Malaysia earlier this year, “perhaps no region on earth has changed so dramatically” during the past several decades.
With this change comes growing influence and greater opportunities to engage on the world stage. Asia’s rise in global affairs is due in no small part to Southeast Asia’s contributions. That’s why the nations of Southeast Asia are and will remain a central focus of America’s rebalance to Asia. We see the nations of Southeast Asia as equal partners in our mission to advance a vision that promotes growth and development, bolsters the security of nations, strengthens democratic governance, and advances human rights for all people. President Obama will continue this work when he visits the region again in November, including stops in China to participate in APEC, Burma for the East Asia Summit, and Australia for the G-20 meeting.
Southeast Asia and its markets are critical to America’s prosperity. Together, ASEAN comprises the seventh largest economy in the world and the fourth largest trading partner for the United States. ASEAN nations draw more U.S. investment than any single country in Asia. And, with some of the fastest-growing economies in the world, ASEAN will only become more important to our economic future. That’s why we’re committed to completing the Trans-Pacific Partnership. One-third of TPP participants are from ASEAN, including members like Singapore, Vietnam, and Malaysia, for whom the high-standard agreement means making serious new commitments. But, this agreement will deliver tremendous benefits to all our economies, and we are committed to helping our partners meet TPP’s requirements and realizing the opportunities for greater trade and investment that come with it.
We’re working to deepen our trade and investment ties with the region. In June, Secretary Pritzker led a delegation of American business leaders to the Philippines, Vietnam, and Burma to explore new commercial opportunities. Ambassador Froman met with all his ASEAN counterparts in Burma last month. Together, we’re promoting growth that is broad-based and sustainable, so that economies can compete on an equal footing and prosperity is shared among citizens at every level of society. Equally, Southeast Asia plays a vital role in maintaining peace and stability throughout Asia. We have long-standing alliances with Thailand and the Philippines, as well as an important security partnership with Singapore. In April, President Obama and President Aquino announced a new Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement that will strengthen cooperation between our militaries. We’re also enhancing our security cooperation with nations like Malaysia and Vietnam, including by improving their capacity to contribute to maritime security.
We continue to work with nations in the region on challenges that none of us can meet alone. This includes addressing borderless threats like climate change, responding to humanitarian crises like last year’s super typhoon, countering violent extremism, and peacefully resolving maritime disputes among neighbors. To support cooperative solutions to these challenges, the United States has made historic investments to strengthen the region’s institutions, including ASEAN. President Obama hosted the first U.S.-ASEAN leaders meeting in 2009, and it’s now an annual event. The President sent our first resident ambassador to ASEAN, and the Senate just confirmed Nina Hachigian to fill the post in the coming years. This increased engagement with ASEAN has already delivered substantial benefits, including improved coordination in responding to natural disasters, growing investment in developing the region’s infrastructure and green energy sources, and rapidly expanding cooperation on maritime safety and security.
We’re also working with governments, institutions and people to strengthen the democratic foundations of the region and fortify protections for human rights. We’ve seen significant successes, as in Indonesia, which demonstrated the strength of its democracy through successful elections and peaceful arbitration. President Obama is looking forward to meeting with President-elect Widodo in November. We’ve seen hopeful steps in Burma, but significant challenges remain as we continue to work with the government and people as they pursue their democratic transition. Unfortunately, we’ve also seen troubling setbacks, as in Thailand. We remain committed to our alliance with the Thai people, but we want to see the country return soonest to an inclusive and democratic government.
We’re also building partnerships directly with the people of the region. We’re doing this through programs like the Lower Mekong Initiative, which helps strengthen communities’ ability to provide for their own healthcare, educate their children, and protect their environment. In Cambodia, USAID is working with local authorities to improve school enrollment among young children. In Indonesia, the Millennium Challenge Cooperation is helping villages raise incomes while reducing their dependence on fossil fuels. And, through President Obama’s Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative, we are helping young people across the region build their skills and connect them to the resources they need to serve their communities, create new businesses, and become the next generation of leaders.
President Obama hosted a remarkable town hall with many of these young people in April in Malaysia. There were entrepreneurs and activists and advocates, all of them impressive and thoughtful young people, and each determined to forge a brighter future. They wanted to know not just how they could become stronger leaders, but how to bridge gaps of culture and language and belief in order to unite a region as diverse as Southeast Asia so that it can to achieve its full potential.
That’s a goal we share—because Southeast Asia is brimming with enormous potential. It’s also facing serious questions about how to adapt as several major powers become more active in the region. China’s rise, Japan’s reemergence, India’s revival, and, of course, America’s rebalance—these dynamics are real, and they converge squarely in Southeast Asia. But, these trends ought to be an opportunity for greater cooperation, not just competition. Southeast Asian nations should not have to choose sides among major powers, particularly when it comes to the United States and China. Preserving the independence and sovereignty of all our partners in the region is at the heart of our policy toward Southeast Asia.
To be sure, America’s relationship with China is important to the future of both our nations, to the region, and to the world. I just traveled to China a couple weeks ago and met with their senior leaders. In November, President Obama will meet again with President Xi to continue deepening our cooperation on major regional and global challenges—building a relationship that allows us to work together on shared interests, and to talk frankly about areas where we disagree, including human rights.
At the same time, we continue to build stronger bilateral relationships with the nations of Southeast Asia and to work together as equals in multilateral fora so that individual nations can preserve their independence while fostering a group dynamic that reinforces collective norms and prevents large states from pressuring smaller ones. That’s another reason we’ve focused on strengthening Asia’s regional institutions, like the East Asia Summit. We want to build and reinforce habits that encourage collaboration—to establish a common set of rights as well as responsibilities that ultimately ensures a level playing field for all.
All of the challenges I’ve discussed today require sustained attention, and even in the press of world events—ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, heightened tensions with Russia over Ukraine, an Ebola epidemic ravaging West Africa—the U.S. commitment to Asia, and to Southeast Asia in particular, remains a priority.
The United States is a Pacific nation. Our shared future is as certain as our shared past. And, the people of the United States and the people of Southeast Asia share a common vision for that future—a future where daughters and sons can go to school and reach confidently for their dreams; where anyone can start a business and have a fair shot to succeed; where fundamental rights can never be restricted or denied. That’s what we’ve been building toward for the past five years. That’s why we’ve worked so closely together in pursuit of shared goals—whether we’re securing the sea lanes of the Pacific or delivering relief in the wake of natural disasters.
With each year, the ties between our peoples grow stronger. And, as we continue working together toward our shared future, the United States will remain a reliable partner and a true friend to all the people of the region. Thank you.