The United States: Southeast Asia’s Economic and Security Partner

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Remarks – Daniel R. Russel – Assistant Secretary, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs – Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore

Thank you, Ambassador Wagar, for the kind introduction. It’s a pleasure to be here at the National University of Singapore, and the Lee Kuan Yew School. I had the honor of meeting Minister Mentor Lee during one of his visits to the White House and I know that, from President Obama on down, he is sorely missed.

It’s a particular honor to be joined today by Ambassador Tommy Koh. He is a living legend. He was an extraordinarily effective Ambassador to the U.S. when I entered the Foreign Service, and was equally legendary as a Permanent Representative when I was assigned to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations.

His historic accomplishments as President of the Law of the Sea Conference are critical to stability and prosperity throughout the world – not only in the South China Sea.

And the free trade agreement he negotiated with the US – the first and arguably the most successful we have in ASEAN – helped pave the way for the TPP agreement that will be signed in the coming weeks.

I’m in Singapore today for the bilateral Strategic Partnership Dialogue, which I just held with Ministry of Foreign Affairs Permanent Secretary Chee Wee Kiong.

These meetings allow me to consult and get advice from my counterparts here. Good advice is one of your highest value exports – when Singapore talks, we listen.

We reviewed the progress we’ve made, the challenges we face, and charted a course for the year ahead. And 2016, which happens to mark 50 years of diplomatic relations between us, will be a very important year.

Let me offer a little background and context, starting when I returned to Washington in 2008 after almost a decade serving overseas. The U.S. and much of the world was in a financial crisis. The lion’s share of America’s attention and resources were focused on the Middle East. Many people felt that we weren’t paying Asia enough attention.

In January of 2009 – 7 years ago this week – I was assigned to work for the new President, Barack Obama, on his Asia team. He made clear to us that he believed that America’s economic interests, our national security, and our values required that we allocate our time and attention; that we rebalance our resources, to ensure we were fully engaged in the Asia-Pacific Region.

It’s worth unpacking why we placed such importance on this region. Let me give you four reasons:

First, there’s the simple economics of shared prosperity. We recognized the world’s economic center of gravity had been shifting to the Asia-Pacific. We expected that to continue, and it has. We recognized that the United States and the Asia-Pacific must grow together.

We’re the region’s engine of growth as the ultimate consumer of most exports leaving Asia; the source of most of Southeast Asia’s foreign investment; and the fount of innovation that keeps all our economies moving ahead.

At the same time, we rely on the region. It’s not just a workshop, not just a growing consumer of American products; it’s increasingly a co-innovator, a partner in developing new solutions to big problems.

These economic links show that we can’t afford not to be in region.

Second, there’s the pressing necessity of shared security. 2009 (like 2016) saw a DPRK nuclear test – a dangerous reminder of North Korea’s dogged pursuit of a nuclear-armed missile capability.

Other challenges further underscored the importance of our presence and our security partnerships in the region.

Third, there’s the long-term importance of institution-building. President Obama’s rationale was straightforward: strong institutions promote a rules-based order, which in turn serves as a brake on the strong and creates space for the small.

That argued for showing up, and for active participation in the affairs of the region.

And fourth, there’s the moral imperative to be true to the universal values of human rights and freedom. As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” So we have used our influence to support those who promote justice, good governance, and opportunity.

Let me speak briefly about what we’ve done in each of these four areas over the past seven years.

We’ve taken our role as economic power and model of openness seriously.

We responded to the global downturn, not with protectionism, but by upgrading and completing the U.S.-Korea FTA and doubling down on opening up trade and investment through the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, or TPP. We remain the largest investor in Singapore and Southeast Asia, ahead of China, Japan, and South Korea combined.

We pursued initiatives to expand trade with China, including through negotiations on a Bilateral Investment Treaty. We championed the global Information Technology Agreement, which will be particularly beneficial to innovation centers like the U.S. and Singapore.

Those who predicted America’s decline have lost their bets. They overlooked the resilience of our economy, an environment that fosters innovation, a spirit of entrepreneurship, a diverse and young workforce, and a resurgent manufacturing sector, powered by our growing supplies of clean and new energy.

All this will be augmented by the entry into force of the TPP. And by the formation of the ASEAN Economic Community, which is poised to accelerate reform, integration, and convergence –with Singapore as a hub.

Next, we’ve taken our role as military power and guarantor of peace seriously.

We’re working more closely than ever with allies and security partners to keep the peace. Our strategy includes stationing 60 percent of our Navy in the region, including the rotational deployment of Littoral Combat Ships here at Changi [Naval Base].

The strategy extends to our commitments to our allies, including through Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreements that give U.S. forces vital access, and through training and capacity building.

Our strategy includes newer partners—like Vietnam. New programs with older partners—like our rotational force program with Australia. And major multilateral exercises such as Cobra Gold in Thailand.

I think that the reason we are the region’s preferred security partner, that we are invited in and invited back, is not merely because of the quality of our military. It’s because we are trusted. And I think we are trusted because, strong as we are, the United States accepts that the same rules apply to us as apply to you. We support rule of law, even when it’s not convenient.

That brings me to the third priority I mentioned, which is building up institutions. We’ve done this through the U.S.-ASEAN Strategic Partnership, the President’s annual participation in the East Asia Summit and U.S.-ASEAN summit, by joining the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, and by sending an Ambassador to ASEAN in Jakarta.

These are the diplomatic foundations of long-term security; the institutionalizing of the rebalance; the “new normal” of our foreign policy. And now American participation is the new normal for ASEAN.

Now, the U.S. is closer than ever with ASEAN as an organization, and almost all its member states.

We’re aligned on issues like climate change and counter-terrorism. We’re working with some of the region’s least developed economies and rallying donors to holistically address health, food security, education, and employment for millions who live in the Mekong River basin.

We’re working together on disaster preparedness, and we’ve led the international response to disasters like Typhoon Haiyan. More ASEAN students are studying in the United States than ever before.

And the YSEALI program, now 50,000 strong, has linked dynamic young people throughout ASEAN to the United States and, to an extraordinary extent, to each other.

We want to expand our partnership with young leaders like you, so I encourage you to join YSEALI if you haven’t already.

Programs like YSEALI show that we are investing in our relationships, for the long term. Our commitment to ASEAN centrality and to fostering rule-setting institutions demonstrates that we want to work with the region, not dominate it. We are a collaborative partner, not a hegemonic one. We want trust, not tribute; friends, not vassals.

A region where major powers partner with ASEAN will be stable. A region where major powers seek spheres of influence will not be.

I believe that because we’ve strengthened relationships and built trust, we’ve been able to advance our values-based foreign policy. Let me be clear – I’m not talking about American values; I’m not talking about Western values; I’m talking about universal values.

Nowhere has President Obama’s commitment to extend a hand to those who will work for human dignity been more apparent than in our support for reform in Myanmar. The historic elections in November allowed the Burmese people to freely choose their leader.

The five years of opening and reform – driven from within but with help from all of us – set the stage for free and fair elections… set the stage for Myanmar to emerge from five decades of repression and military rule. Set the stage for Burmese citizens to build unity, dignity, opportunity and prosperity. Set the stage for a stronger ASEAN.

We’ve been proud to support this transformation, and we’ll continue to do so as Myanmar, under Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership, meets the significant challenges ahead.

Now of course Singapore held elections last year; and barely a week ago, the people of Taiwan also showed the world again what a mature Chinese-speaking democracy looks like. But values-based diplomacy is not only about good news; not only about elections.

That’s why we speak out and work for basic rights and freedoms throughout the region. And why we will not be silent when human rights are violated, elected governments are overthrown, peaceful protesters and activists are incarcerated, politicians and lawyers are intimidated, bloggers are silenced, publishers and reporters are attacked or “disappeared.”

We strive for a moral foreign policy, not a moralistic one.

That’s why we contribute to health and nutrition in Laos, to girls’ education in Cambodia, to food and water security along the Mekong, to disaster relief and recovery in the Philippines, to climate adaptation throughout the Pacific, and to combatting trafficking and humanitarian and refugee crises, especially in the last year, that cost so many lives.

I was in the room with President Obama last November when he met with refugees and trafficking victims that Malaysia is generously caring for. We, too, are dedicated to helping those in need.

President Obama’s actions showed that these migrants are to be helped, not pitied. They are not just people in need of assistance, they’re people who are fully capable of developing the skills and abilities to go with their hopes and dreams. People who would be a credit to any country.

My point is this: diplomatically, militarily, institutionally and morally, the United States is invested in Southeast Asia; we are fully present and accounted for, both now, and for the long term. Because in this Pacific century, our futures are bound together.

So, let’s take a quick look at 2016.

It’s an election year in America, so before you ask, let me tell you who will win… (just kidding). Let me assure you that, regardless of who wins, I’m confident America’s attention to the Asia-Pacific will endure. Let me tell you why.

Simply put, it’s in our interests, as I’ve explained. Moreover, the contours of our Asia policy simply aren’t contentious. They’re truly bipartisan.

Sure, you see tactical differences over how to deal with North Korea’s nuclear program, or with China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea. But no serious policy player thinks we should pull back from the region. Nobody.

So now that I’ve established we’re not going away, what are some of the big challenges that face us in the rest of this year?

North Korea’s latest nuclear test highlights the existential threat of nuclear weapons. Terrorism in Jakarta reminds us that since anyone can be attacked, all must act.

The tensions in the South China Sea show that while decades of open trade and rules-based cooperation have lifted hundreds of millions of Asians out of poverty, coercive behavior can put stability at risk.

Let’s take these one at a time. On North Korea, we and our partners have a strategy of deterrence, pressure, and diplomacy.

To maintain deterrence, we are modernizing our security alliances with South Korea and Japan. To keep up pressure, we are enacting stronger sanctions, including at the U.N.

We are mobilizing the international community to obstruct North Korea’s proliferation activities and to confront its human rights abuses – Pyongyang’s protests show this is hitting home.

But this pressure isn’t to punish North Korea; it’s designed to show North Korea’s leadership that the world will never accept them as a nuclear armed state or provide economic assistance absent denuclearization. To get them to accept that they have no viable alternative to a negotiated end to their nuclear and missile programs.

We have extended our hand, but Pyongyang will not unclench its fist. Mr. Kim need look no further than the Iran deal. We keep our word. A better path is open to North Korea if it will honor its commitments, negotiate denuclearization, and comply with international law.

We are also uniting around a strategy to contend with terrorism. A Counter-ISIL Coalition, with support from Singapore, Malaysia, and others across Asia, is working to stop the flow of recruits and funds to the battlefields of Syria and Iraq.

As more and more territory is taken back from ISIL in Iraq, programs to stabilize these areas with basic services and attract returning displaced families are receiving strong financial support from Japan and Korea.

But as the recent attacks in Jakarta showed, it is not enough to defeat ISIL on the battlefield. We must prevent ISIL from radicalizing, recruiting, and inspiring others in the first place.

Across Southeast Asia, governments are responding to this challenge. For instance, Singapore is partnering with civil society to address radicalization and recruitment, and Malaysia is establishing a counter-messaging center to push back against ISIL’s propaganda.

Working together – across agencies and borders – is essential to this effort. That’s why we have offered to support governments in the region as they work to strengthen information sharing, border security, and law enforcement cooperation, and as they respond to the threat of returning foreign terrorist fighters.

Moving to the South China Sea. Instead of restraint and the respect for neighbors and peace that both China and ASEAN promised in the 2002 Declaration of Conduct, we have seen a massive campaign of reclamation and construction of large military-grade runways and facilities on disputed reefs in the Spratlys.

Despite the protests and best efforts of quite a few countries, continued efforts to operationalize runways are exacerbating tensions. We all see now reports on a regular basis of ships and planes being warned away and fisherman chased out of their traditional fishing grounds.

You can’t claim to uphold freedom of navigation and then block access to international waters by calling it a quote “security zone”. That’s a concept that doesn’t exist in international law.

We’ve consistently called on all parties, not only China, to reduce tensions in the South China Sea. We’ve called on all claimants to clarify their claims consistent with international law.

And we’ve called on all parties to use diplomacy or legal mechanisms, not coercion, to reconcile disputes. But the pace of unilateral actions to change the status quo is actually increasing, and that undermines regional stability as the statements by ASEAN leaders make clear.

Neither Singapore nor the United States seek territory in the South China Sea, and we both value our friendly relations with those who have claims. We are not backing one claimant against another, but we are both backing international law, the peaceful resolution of disputes, and freedom of navigation and overflight.

The U.S. and Singapore – one of the world’s biggest countries and one of the world’s smallest – both agree that this issue isn’t about the rocks, it’s about the rules.

So, in a few months, when the Law of the Sea Tribunal hands down its decision on the pending case over the “Nine Dash Line” and other matters, the outcome will be binding on China and the Philippines – regardless of what the decision may be.

But even if the decision favors the Philippines, it will not undermine China’s right to claim sovereignty to recognized land features and their territorial waters. So the case under UNCLOS really is about rules, and not rocks.

And what I think we are seeing is that peaceful cooperation based on respect for international law becomes even more important to all of us as global economic integration become tighter.

But it’s not only international law that matters in the 21st century. In a growing number of countries around the world, civil society and human and civil rights are under pressure, under threat.

A vibrant civil society that enables the free exchange of ideas; an independent media and the ability to speak up and challenge orthodoxy – these are all key to success, including and especially economic success, in the 21st century.

Corruption can’t be rooted out society if justice is not independent of politics, even if corrupt individuals can be purged. A knowledge economy can’t grow where information – the lifeblood of progress – is manipulated or blocked.

All the issues and challenges I’ve mentioned today, and more, are on the agenda for 2016, in virtually every engagement we have. Secretary Kerry and Defense Secretary Carter discussed them last week in our 2+2 dialogue with the Philippines.

President Obama discussed them the day before yesterday in the Oval Office with Australian Prime Minister Turnbull. The Perm Sec and I discussed them today in our strategic dialogue.

Tomorrow I fly to Vientiane to meet up with Secretary Kerry to consult with Laos, the Chair of ASEAN. From there we go to Phnom Penh and then Beijing.

Just a few weeks later, we will join President Obama at Sunnylands where he’ll host Prime Minister Lee and the other ASEAN leaders for a historic Summit meeting that reflects America’s enduring interests in Southeast Asia.

We have a packed ASEAN-U.S. agenda as well as a packed calendar for 2016.

The leaders will discuss how to support integration under the new ASEAN Community; they will talk about trade and investment; about how we can work together to promote innovation and entrepreneurship – areas that can boost opportunity and prosperity for millions of people.

They will discuss climate change, which directly affects the security and welfare of all our citizens.

They’ll work to expand maritime cooperation, which is vital to the region’s economy and food security.

They’ll seek expanded information sharing to help stop foreign terrorist fighters and transnational criminals.

And we’ll consider how we take our dynamic programs to engage young leaders, and to engage women across society, to the next level. Programs like YSEALI.

And just as important as the agenda at Sunnylands is the maturity it shows in our relationship – that our leaders can gather in a less formal atmosphere and actually have an open exchange of ideas… instead of a rote recitation of talking points.

That speaks to the leaders’ trust for each other. It serves as a building block of enduring friendship.

After Sunnylands, the President will host Asian and other leaders at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, and then travel to the G7 meetings in Japan.

Secretary Kerry will co-chair the Strategic and Economic Dialogue with China again this summer; the President will visit Laos for the ASEAN Summits and Beijing for the G20; and the Secretary will host the Our Ocean conference in Washington.

And while they’re at home, the President and the Secretary will be rallying support in Congress for the TPP and for continued funding for our Asia priorities.

Stepping back, what’s perhaps most remarkable about our high pace of engagement is that it’s not really remarkable at all. This high pace of engagement in Asia that I just laid out for 2016 now seems normal. And ASEAN is at the center of it.

The strong bipartisan support for a policy rooted in America’s own best interests gives confidence that any future administration will carry on with the rebalance.

This policy is a proven winner. The Administration has implemented and expanded it, despite ISIL, despite Iran, despite Ukraine, despite Syria – and that’s perhaps the most persuasive argument that this policy will be sustained.

We recognize that the Pacific Century is underway. We look forward to shaping it with you – hand in hand.