The United States is the only major power that has refused to sign a non-aggression treaty with Southeast Asia but it may reverse its stand to maintain its influence in the region amid competition from China.
As Washington and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) mark 30 years of ties this year, there is a realization within the administration of President George W. Bush and Congress that acceding to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation was critical to fostering closer links with the region, experts say.
The treaty, which bans signatories from using violence to settle conflicts in the region, a key policy of ASEAN, was established during the height of the Cold War.ASEAN leaders have appealed to the United States, a crucial dialogue partner of the grouping, on several occasions to sign on the dotted line to reaffirm its political and security commitment to the region.
But Washington refused for various reasons, including reported fears of restrictions on free movement of US forces, particularly the navy, in the region as well as concerns the US Senate could impose human rights and other conditions on ASEAN member states such as Myanmar when ratifying the accord.
More recently, however, the US administration and legislature seem to have taken a more proactive stance.
“The US government is aware of ASEAN’s desire that the United States and ASEAN’s other dialogue partners accede to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation,” a US State Department official said.“We are studying the various legal and policy issues related to possible US accession to the treaty,” the official told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The United States has not made a decision at this time on whether to sign” the treaty, he added.Experts see the stance as more positive than about a year ago.
A key reason for this is believed to be potential US participation in an East Asia summit, organized by ASEAN and comprising the 10 ASEAN states, China, Japan and South Korea as well as India, Australia and New Zealand.
Acceding to the treaty has been an ASEAN criteria for any country wanting to participate in the annual summit.A key plan by the 16 countries, which have held two summits so far, is to forge a free trade area that would account for around half the world’s population.
ASEAN will act as a cog in the plan based on its own bid to create a single market by 2015.The United States is concerned it may be left behind in the integration of East Asia and upstaged by China which is beginning to assert its influence in the region, which accounts for about 40% of total world gross domestic product, 26% of global trade flows and 30% of US exports.
“I think what you’ve see more recently is that the administration has taken a more proactive stance towards joining the East Asian integration process, particularly through President Bush’s proposal last year for a free trade area of the Asia-Pacific,” Michael Green, Bush’s ex-senior Asia advisor, told AFP.Congress is also more receptive now towards inking the pact, he said.
“I detect that they, Republicans and Democrats, would be inclined to let the administration sign the TAC (Treaty of Amity and Cooperation) in order to strengthen our cooperation with ASEAN and participation in the region,” Green said.
When the East Asia summit was first proposed, “it did not appear to have any legs, it was considered not worth the political capital to try to do it but as people have looked at it more and as the summit has indeed taken off, I think that has shifted people’s perspective,” Green said.“I don’t know if the administration is yet poised to sign the treaty but I do think that the thinking is shifting,” he pointed out.
Top American and Asian experts who attended recent US forum on “the emerging regional architecture in Asia” recommended that the administration and Congress “further examine modalities for signing” the accord.
The forum, held by influential US groups, the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Stanley Foundation, said “the emergence of the East Asian summit, and American absence at its creation, not only demands greater American attention but is also widely perceived in Asia as an indicator of US ‘distraction´ from its critical regional role in recent years.”
ASEAN diplomats in Washington say that if it accedes to the treaty, the United States may be accepted to the East Asia summit at the same time as Russia, which has already signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation.
Malaysia wanted to announce Moscow’s entry into the summit when it hosted the inaugural gathering in 2005 which Vladimir Putin addressed as a guest but shelved the plan due to objections largely from Singapore and Indonesia, reportedly echoing American concerns.
“Eventually, the US and Russia membership will stabilize what many see as an unstable configuration in the summit at present,” one ASEAN diplomat said.The European Union has also indicated it may sign up to the treaty, paving the way for participation in the summit as well.“If the EU also accedes, it essentially means that the five permanent UN Security Council powers will have embraced TAC, which is an extraordinary development,” the ASEAN diplomat said.