The United States and ASEAN: A Strong Foundation, A Bright Future

Acting Assistant Secretary Susan Thornton and the U.S. team prepare for Secretary Tillerson’s arrival in Manila for ASEAN 2017.

By: Susan A. Thornton is the Acting Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.

It has been 50 years since it all started and 40 years since the United States began its formal relationship with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). I wonder if back in 1977 they had any idea how expansive that relationship could grow? Could my diplomatic predecessors have imagined we’d be partnering through Fulbright and the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative to bring thousands of ASEAN citizens on exchanges to America and throughout the region, or that an Innovation Challenge would produce a creative new idea for fish farming that could help feed their countries? That 16,000 young leaders could gather on a single day of community service in dozens of cities throughout the region to show their dedication to civic engagement?

Could they have imagined, as the 10 member states collectively grew to become the 5th largest economy in the world, that our economic partnership in two-way trade and investment would create an uncountable number of jobs on both sides of the Pacific? Could they have imagined this collective could gather 27 countries to participate in the annual ASEAN Regional Forum, their foreign ministers engaging in dialogue and consultation on security and preventive diplomacy?

Over 50 years, as ASEAN has developed, our cooperation has broadened and deepened and what began as a simple dialogue has become a full-fledged strategic partnership. Today the United States and ASEAN are addressing the North Korean threat, working to mitigate maritime disputes in the South China Sea, and addressing shared transnational security challenges including terrorism, cybersecurity threats, and trafficking in persons.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson poses for a family photo with Foreign Ministers of the ASEAN Member States — Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

The foundation of our relationship is our people — whether we are wrangling over tough security issues to protect nearly one billion of us or implementing programs that develop skills and networks, and we will demonstrate our commitment by continuing programs for our citizens to promote economic prosperity, women’s empowerment, and youth engagement. We know these efforts are effective because as Graciela Mante from the Philippines said, her experience with YSEALI “strengthened my motivation to create a more positive change”. And for this double anniversary year, we are supporting additional celebratory events — including an exchange program for ASEAN Supreme Court Justices and technology camps for ASEAN youth.

During a meeting with ASEAN Permanent Representatives, Vice President Pence said, “Together we will build on our firm foundation to reach even greater heights in the next 50 years of this great organization.” When Secretary Tillerson meets with his ASEAN counterparts at the ASEAN Regional Forum this week, we will proudly celebrate 40 years of close ties between the United States and ASEAN -and we will imagine what we can achieve together in another 40 years.

Originally published on on August 4, 2017.