Diplomatic Pouch / January 10, 2013
By Larry Luxner
Back in 1967, during the height of the Vietnam War, five countries — Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines — quietly established the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) to boost their regional bargaining power. But it would be decades before the fledging trade bloc could pull any real economic muscle.
Not so today. The 10 countries that now form ASEAN are home to 600 million people and boast a combined GDP of $2.1 trillion. Even more impressively, ASEAN economies grew by 4.7 percent last year despite tightening economic conditions, higher oil prices and volatile global capital flows.
Late last month, more than 300 of Washington’s top diplomats and dignitaries converged on the Mandarin Oriental Hotel to mark ASEAN’s 45th anniversary. The Nov. 29 gathering brought together all 10 Washington-based ambassadors of the ASEAN member states, as well as the U.S. envoys to those countries and dozens of State Department heavy hitters who have dedicated their careers to Southeast Asia.
David Carden, Washington’s Jakarta-based ambassador to ASEAN, said the organization is so important that he decided to redesign his business card.
“I wanted to put a map of the ASEAN region on the back of my card, so I found one and asked for a printer,” he told the audience. “But it kept coming back with borders between the countries. I said they were missing the point, that I didn’t want any borders on my card. It took three weeks, and finally on the back I got a lovely gold map of ASEAN. I have been asking people for a year and a half to put this same map on the back of their cards if they have anything to do with ASEAN, and no one has.”
Alexander C. Feldman, president of the US-ASEAN Business Council, welcomed his guests as they dined on beet tart tatin with goat cheese, Thai spiced rockfish, jasmine rice and coconut chocolate mousse. He also thanked the Fortune 500 companies that bankrolled the lavish event: oil conglomerates ExxonMobil and Chevron, cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris International, automaker Ford Motor Co., beverage behemoth Coca-Cola, software developer Oracle and mining giant Freeport-McMoRan.
Kurt Campbell, U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, entertained the crowd with his “completely true story” of what it was like to accompany President Obama on the first-ever presidential visit to Burma, also known as Myanmar.
“We all flew into Yangon [Rangoon] together on Air Force One,” he said. “As I’m running to my car, two Secret Service guys are running after me. They told me the president wanted me to ride with him in his limousine. You can’t imagine the sense of excitement. It was thrilling and wonderful to be driving down the main boulevard leading into Yangon with hundreds of thousands of people in the streets.”
Along the way, Campbell pointed out to Obama a historic Buddhist temple, which the president later insisted on visiting. At one point, Campbell — desperately looking for a bathroom — got separated from his group, but was rescued by a group of teenage Burmese girls holding a picture of their “idol” Joseph Yun, who happens to be Campbell’s deputy at State.
Although Obama’s history-making visit to Burma and his meeting with human rights icon Aung San Suu Kyi grabbed most of the headlines, the president also visited Thailand as well as Cambodia — a country that suffered deeply during the Vietnam War and later, at the hands of the murderous Khmer Rouge. Obama’s stopover in Phnom Penh coincided with the 4th ASEAN-U.S. Leaders’ Meeting and the 7th East Asia Summit.
Cham Prasidh, Cambodia’s minister of commerce, told dignitaries that his country is proud of its emerging role within ASEAN, which he said is on track to realize “full integration” by end of 2015.
Meanwhile, he said, Cambodia’s per-capita GDP has quintupled from around $200 in 1992 to nearly $1,000 this year. Over the same period, the poverty rate has declined from 50 percent to 20 percent, and should drop further to 19 percent in 2013.
“ASEAN has undergone a major transformation since its founding in 1967, from an unstable region to a region of peace, stability and development,” Cham said. “Today, ASEAN has become a closely integrated political and economic entity, an influential player in Asia and an indispensable strategic partner” for the United States.
Cambodia will also be home to ASEAN’s planned Regional Mine Action Center, it was announced at the summit. Delegates also nominated Vietnamese statesman Le Luong Minh as ASEAN’s new secretary-general, who will serve from 2013 to 2018.
“ASEAN continues to face challenges, both globally and regionally, such as the fragile economic recovery of developed countries, coupled with Europe’s prolonged and severe debt crisis, ongoing social and political turmoil in the Middle East, high oil prices, climate change, natural disasters, terrorism and transnational crime,” he said. “We can clearly see that these challenges cannot be tackled at the national level, but require a more cooperative, in-depth regional approach.”