Occupy Wall Street and Beyond

Occupy Wall Street is a protest movement against inequality, greed, corporate-government nexus and police brutality which broke out on September 17, 2011 in Zuccotti Park of Wall Street in New York. The international protest was named “Occupy Movement” and in other parts of the United States, the movement was called “Occupy Together”. There is no formal, explicitly stated leadership and the protestors are mostly young and unemployed. However, there are moderators, and as it happens in any society, movement or organization, leaders have emerged. The noise, complete lack of civility and violence in the movement has often been pointed out by the critics. Police brutality is rampant and many protestors were arrested.

The eruption of the protests

The protests broke out when Adbusters foundation in Canada urged people to peacefully occupy the Wall Street to protest against the growing disparity of wealth and the government’s rescue package to deal with the failures of the financial crisis through their email list. Slowly, many other groups joined in to organize the movement which was largely inspired by the strategy of the Arab Spring protests. The protests began when thousands of protestors marched through the streets. In a month, the demonstrators were tens of thousands in number and held protests in close to thousand cities across the world. In two months, the movement had spread to 2,609 towns and cities across the world. The protests slowly led to arrests and the police mistreatment of protesting women and journalists were controversial.

Goals of the movement

The stated goal of the movement was protesting the Wall Street for its collusion with the state. The explicit goal clashes with the views of many critics, but there is a clustering of many mutually incompatible political positions among the protestors. Though the leaders of the movement were very much against the media reading too much into their positions other than the protesting Wall Street, the protestors in other towns and cities were free to define their positions. Social and economic justice, better employment opportunities and working conditions, income equality, banking reforms and the elimination of corporate power are the demands which echo the most.

The role of the Wall Street

The protestors tend to believe that the Wall Street and corporate greed are largely responsible for the financial crisis and resulting stagnation. The protestors oppose bailouts, and suggest banking reforms and a better regulatory framework. Many economists argue that the stock market serves a healthy economic purpose, and that the Wall Street couldn’t have brought about the crisis by its own. They argue that the blame should be shared with the Federal Reserve System which issues cheap, artificial credit and distorts the market signals to investors and individual businessmen. The Federal Reserve System has been quite active for long to rescue financial firms which run into trouble, and to compel the taxpayers to bailout these companies.

The Political Slogan: “We are the 99%”

The protestors held a themed sign which read “We are the 99%”. It was in reference to the growing inequality between the majority of the population in the United States and an elite minority, which according to the protestors, arrogated to themselves, much of the wealth and political clout. The slogan emphasizes the notion that 1% of the population owns a significant part of the wealth in the United States. It is also argued that the income disparity has gone up slightly after the economic recession. Though the concentration of wealth is often overstated, there is much truth in it, and the sentiments echoed by the slogan are not far off the mark. It is true that an elite minority owns a significant part of the wealth in the United States and very few go to the extent of denying this. However, there is much criticism against the proposed solution of redistribution of wealth.

Is inequality growing?

The Gini index (or coefficient), a measure of income inequality tells us that income inequality has been growing dramatically in the recent past. However, other studies of the income distribution in the United States do not support the notion that income inequality has been rising in the present century. The Census Bureau measures suggest that the income inequality had gone up from 1960 till 1990, but have remained roughly constant in the last two decades.

Inequality is much less pronounced when we consider income of households instead of that of individuals. The size of the households has shrunk over time and, the number of households has been growing at a much faster pace than that of the population growth. Income inequality statistics which fails to take this into account can be highly misleading.

According to US Treasury department statistics, between 1975 and 1997 the wealthiest 20% in the United Stated raised their status from receiving 43.2% of the national income to receiving 49.4% of it. The poorest 20%, at the same time from receiving 4.4% went down the rung to receiving 3.6%. But economist Steve Horwitz points out that the people who formed the bottom 20% in 1975 are for the large part different from the ones who formed it in 1997. The poorest had almost always raised their financial status and moved out the bottom quintile in these two decided. Moreover, 4.4% of the total national income in 1975 is a much smaller figure when compared to 3.6% of the total national income in 1997. The absolute position of low income individuals have been consistently improving for long.

Causes of inequality

The poor often remains poor because success in the market is partly luck and often influenced by closeness with the state. However, the consensus in twin adoption studies suggest that intelligence and conscientiousness are the strongest predictors of financial success.

The arguments against egalitarianism

Many economists think that it is the wealth of a small minority which makes the superior living standards of the common man possible. They argue that much of the wealth of the extremely rich is in the form of means of production and not in the form of consumer goods which are available in the market. It is the concentrated wealth which allows big corporations to invest in physical infrastructure. Such huge capital investment results in much higher productivity, higher wages and lower prices which wouldn’t have been possible at all in a society of self-sufficient farms and small traders. The growth of individual fortunes of businessmen pales in comparison to the growth of big business enterprises.

Big business enterprises are almost without exception, corporations, and not owned by a single individual. The big business enterprises would have long lost its status if it hadn’t served the needs of the masses, as they always serve the common man though not always in a manner visible to the untrained mind.

However, these economists readily concede that in the present world, to a large extent, wealth acquired and sustained through special state privileges and by maintaining proximity with the government. The elimination of government privileges, protection and subsidies will make the path of riches open to everyone, and not just to an aristocracy of pull. The regulatory burden and progressive taxation, especially in developing countries like India makes it increasingly difficult for an upstart to accumulate capital and reach the state of big business.

Reaction to the protests

Unlike the reaction to the Tea party movement, the public response to the Occupy Wall Street protests is largely favourable. The response is positive from left-liberal media which claimed that the protests are a left-wing tea party. While unions predominantly agree to the goals of the protests, some disagree with the anarchistic structure of the protests which is strikingly different from the unions which are well organized and authoritarian in structure. Intellectuals and people in the entertainment industry are largely supportive, and some of them make public speeches at the protests. Many leaders of huge corporations think that the protests are much understandable, though they often have disagreements on the nature and goal of protests. Most think that things are not as good as they ought to be and that to say otherwise would be a complete denial of reality.

The libertarian ambivalence

Some libertarians and political commentators who are well to the right on the political spectrum looked down upon the protests as a pincer movement, a diabolical plot of the left to overthrow the very foundations of a capitalistic society. However, some of them believe that the protests are well justified, and that it is high time that crony capitalists are stripped of their special privileges and positions. Their disagreement is not so much on the stated goal as it is on the nature of the protests and proposed solutions. Many of them think that the protests should be peaceful, and should make a coherent and well thought out case against central banking in particular and government power in general. Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve and Ron Paul, the most libertarian politician from both the houses sympathized with the protests on some important levels, though for different reasons. While Ron Paul thought that the Federal Reserve (Fed) should be held up for criticism, Ben Bernanke dismissed the public outrage against the Fed as a misconception. However, both agreed that the economic situation of the country is dismal and people have reasons to find the policy response to it unsatisfactory.

The reaction of political leaders

Many political leaders across the world have expressed solidarity with the movement while some others have disagreed or have had mixed feelings about the same. The American President Barack Obama said that the protests express the deep frustrations of the American public with the aftermath of the financial crisis and the tendency of the powers-that-be to freeze the status quo. The Indian Prime minister Manmohan Singh said that there are reasons why people are protesting and that the system should be willing to honestly address these problems. The Former United Kingdom Prime Minister Tony Blair was among the few who strongly disagreed with the protests.

Conclusion

The performance of the world economies would have been better if it hadn’t been for panics and recessions which occasionally strike them. The public outrage against corporatism, inequality and the failures of central bank monetary management is understandable, but should be directed towards the real culprits.

How to Lead Your Team Through a Crisis

The ability to lead becomes incredibly apparent during times of crisis. The 2009 global financial system meltdown is a good case in point. Watching good and bad leaders during times of crisis provides us with lessons on how to act when faced with our own moments of crisis.

As a leader, there are critical attributes that you need to master in order to successfully navigate you’re your team and organization through the turbulence of a crisis into the tranquility of a stable environment.

These attributes are:-

i. Ability to stay calm

Who wants to have a leader who panics in times of crisis? To be an effective leader, you need to learn how to detach yourself from the emotions of the daily ups and downs of life. This is a fundamental characteristic of a strong leader in times of crisis. Consider relinquishing your leadership mantle to someone else if you get struck by bouts of panic during times of crisis

ii. Ability to identify and fix the pressing problem

It is not wise reacting to symptoms of a problem without getting to the problem itself. As a leader, you need to accurately diagnose the root of the problem and fix it. Time is very critical during a crisis. Sometimes there may be need to deal with the symptom because of the present impact. However, you must never cool off and stop at this. You need to dig deep into the root problem and solve it.

It is important to deal as much as possible with facts rather than opinions. When you are trying to project what may happen in the future, consider seeking the opinions of many especially those who have a good track record of understanding how the forces at play are likely to interact.

iii. Ability to consult and seek advice

Conventional wisdom demands that you seek advice especially when a crisis checks in. During this time, unintentional results of your actions can have a more immediate impact. You should draw a line between seeking advice and seeking a consensus. It is advisable that you decide solely rather than jointly. Before making a decision, you need to have the facts about the crisis and the potential aftermath of actions or inactions observed from as many viewpoints as possible.

iv. Ability to think strategically

In time of crisis, thinking about big issues while letting smaller ones look after themselves is absolutely critical. You need to get the right big picture rather than getting the big picture absolutely right. This is the time to make a decision about the right things, of course without forgetting the importance of the executing detail.

v. Ability to be authentic

You can not afford to posture when you are in a crisis. It is time to say what you mean and mean exactly what you say, period. Never let your team take a second guessing what your intentions might be. Clearly say if you are taking a calculated risk or are not sure about the answer. Use clear and simple language as obtuse language has a tendency of leaving people confused besides opening your message to various interpretations.

Be conscious about your body language as well since a feeble look will cast doubt on your level of conviction and ability to see a crisis through.

vi. Ability to communicate

Talk it all to your team. Inform your team about what you know, what you do not know and what you are doing about what you must know. Tell your team about your decisions and why you make them. Reiterate your message as saying it once may at times not be enough. Use all effective mediums as well as different communication styles to ensure that as many people as possible get the correct message.

China plus ASEAN plus FTA equals East Asian Unification? Not Quite Part II

As discussed in Part I of this series, the ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement (ACFTA) will be a win-win for the signatories. The agreement will produce greater economies of scales, as it expands trade between members, which will result in an aggregate increase in competitive export products from China and ASEAN. However, it will not foreshadow European-style regional integration, at least not in the near future. The centrifugal force generated by the agreement will not only draw ASEAN closer to China, the regions manufacturing hub, but it will push those states outside the bloc to liberalize their own trade in order to stay competitive. While the United States is generally supportive of ASEAN, it is not in the strategic interest of the U.S. for it to be outside of an Asian economic bloc, especially one that will aid in cementing a strong Chinese leadership position in Southeast Asia. Implementation of this agreement has increased concerns among some analysts that the economic and perhaps, the political center of gravity of the region are shifting away from the United States and toward China.

Over the last 10 years, Southeast Asia has received approximately US$90 billion in U.S. foreign direct investment (FDI); it is the third largest market for U.S. exports; and U.S.-ASEAN trade is over US$140 billion (Pitsuwan 2008). Southeast Asia is flush with agricultural and natural resources, and is home to more than half of the world’s annual merchant shipping traffic. Intraregional trade between ASEAN nations still hovers at 25% and in East Asia, it now verges on 55% (Pitsuwan 2008). Over 80% of Japanese and Chinese oil imports travel through these sea-lanes. The geopolitical reality is that due to proximity and economic clout, China’s access to this region will increase. This could not only be detrimental to America’s economic interests, but also represent a strategic threat.

It is in America and ASEANs best interest for the U.S. to not only promote further ASEAN integration, but also establish stronger ties with the region. This will enable ASEAN to serve as a fulcrum between China (and India). America must also realize that China’s increasing penetration into Southeast Asia is not a zero-sum game; the U.S. must be prepared to have a constructive working relationship with China in the region. If the America hopes to balance China’s growing influence it will need a rapprochement with ASEAN that displays a cohesive policy for the organization, but at the same time exploit the diversity of opinion within ASEAN. This will allow the U.S. to advance its policy goals in the region.

China

Over the last decade, China’s resurgent role in Southeast Asia has moved from a situation that generated fear in the region, to one where China is seen as a benign regional leader that plays a constructive role in creating opportunity. China has worked hard to market this image while participating in regional institutions. Its long-term goals are to create greater interdependencies between itself and Southeast Asia through economic incentives, which will give ASEAN a strong stake in China’s success. In this way, ASEAN can serve as insurance against possible U.S., Japanese, Indian containment in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean. At the same time, Beijing hopes it can simultaneously reduce the influence of the United States in the South China Sea.

China is increasing its political reach in the region through a series of strong bilateral ties with ASEAN member-states. These links include increased cooperation in regional security (including providing military training), scholarships, and helping to facilitate conflict resolution in the region. China has also promised over US$10 billion in infrastructure, energy, and cultural programs between the countries. China has especially provided special assistance to the lesser developed states of Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar.

During the 1997 Asian financial Crisis, America did not provide significant leadership, which left room for China advance itself as a regional leader, often at the expense of Japan. China promised not to devalue its currency, the Renminbi, which helped return stability to the markets, a move much praised in the region. Tokyo worked to provide a competitive framework for an Asian Monetary fund, in an effort to engender long-term stability. Washington repeatedly blocked this endeavor, out of fear it would be froze-out by a potential Asian bloc. Japan and China are still pushing their competing ideas of a greater-East Asia economic sphere, but the main difference between the two nations is that Japan wishes to include Australia, New Zealand, and India in an attempt to minimize the influence of China. Obviously, China is not interested in having none ASEAN and East Asian nations involved.

The idea for an Asian Monetary Fund did not die. In February 2008, the ASEAN+3 forum in Thailand agreed to expand bilateral currency swaps and also enlarge the Chiang Mai Initiative reserve fund in order to enhance regional economic stability in the wake of the current global financial crisis. This goal has prompted ASEAN+3, in coordination with the Asian Development Bank (ADB), to develop an Asian Currency Unit (ACU) as part of a comprehensive Asian Monetary Fund. China has promoted the idea, which has gained wide regional support. China championing this effort appears surprising considering past objections; however, Beijing is supportive of the ACU because it is now able to take a greater leadership role in its management than Japan, whereas it was not in a position to do so 10 years earlier. Although meant to be non-tradable, the ACU would be an indicator of the stability of participating currencies in the region, an Asian version of the European Currency Unit, which was the precursor to the Euro. Due to the wide variance in levels of economic development, the sophistication of financial transfer systems, and the levels of nationalism in the Pacific Rim, a single currency for the region is still unlikely.

What ASEAN Needs

Western analyst had long criticized and even dismissed ASEAN; the common narrative characterized the organization as soft on human rights and democracy, and therefore incapable of taking decisive and constructive action concerning regional issues that were important to the West. Some pasts areas of conflict involved human rights in Myanmar and East Timor, as well as issues of democracy in key members states like Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Part of the problem is that Western observers have not tended to judge ASEAN on its own merit, but instead, based on how it compares to the contemporary European Union (EU). As a result, ASEAN has never been fully respected by the United States.

For their part, not all ASEAN members have been eager to see a stronger American presence in the region. In the 1990’s, former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad called for a greater East Asian forum, which would exclude the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand. Many in the region termed this the “caucus without Caucasians”, something Washington successfully nixed, but to only see it rebooted a decade later as ASEAN+3.

At the time, the exclusion of Western nations reflected the regional vogue of “Asian Values”, an ideology trumpeted by Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, along with some political thinkers in Japan. Those who adhered to this ideology espoused that all Asians share distinctive cultural traits that make them fundamentally different from Westerners; therefore, Western political and social norms were not entirely appropriate for Asian societies. Some of these shared Asian values are a preference for social harmony, government paternalism, collectivism over the rights of individuals, respect toward authority, and a greater concern for socio-economic stability over human rights.

By the turn of the century, deeply pragmatic ASEAN states came to the realization that it was impossible to push Western powers out of the region, so it began what was termed, “constructive engagement” with all of them. Under this policy, ASEAN intends to hedge its relationship with the larger powers (China, India, America, and Australia) as an intermediary, reaping the benefits for its member states. Singapore Minister of Foreign Affairs George Yeo, speaking for ASEAN to the press in November 2007, described the importance of America to Southeast Asia: “In short, no major strategic issue in Asia can be resolved without the active participation of the U.S” (Marciel 2008).

America’s Next Move

In the aftermath of 9-11, the bulk of Washington’s foreign policy capacity was consumed by wars in the Middle East and Central Asia. Major initiatives in Southeast Asia fell by the wayside as the primary focus moved to counterterrorism and other security concerns. Even when America’s focus broadened beyond the “War on Terror” into issues of trade, its approach was often ineffectual. The U.S. cannot afford to squander another decade in the region teetering between security issues and weak trade.

The 2005, Joint Vision Statement on the ASEAN-U.S. Enhanced Partnership was not enough to secure America’s future in Southeast Asia; Washington needs to define, create, and utilize more avenues of regular dialogue between itself and ASEAN. Although the U.S. and ASEAN have enjoyed relations for 30 years, no regular annual summits have ever been established. Shoring up the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC) is a good place to begin, but it should only be a pass-through for more specialized U.S.-ASEAN talks. The current lack of contact hurts America’s ability to focus its attention on ASEAN states. The U.S. should encourage East/Southeast Asian integration, because it will help to socialize and constrain provocative movements by China. It may also encourage American investors to do greater business in the region, as the various types of independent national laws and regulations are streamlined. Nevertheless, America should also exploit areas of friction between ASEAN and China, as well as the lack of cohesion within ASEAN.

Although China has achieved strong ties with certain members of ASEAN, many nations in the region, such as Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam still maintain a healthy fear of Chinese hegemony and anti-Chinese sentiment in their populations has not yet abated. There have been complaints, by some ASEAN members, that China pushed bilateral FTA negotiations to isolate nations that were not very pro-China, such as Malaysia and Vietnam. Southeast Asian diplomats have also grumbled that China’s influence has hindered consensus building within ASEAN as member nations try to gage Beijing’s potential reaction.

The U.S. has also not closely engaged China-friendly states, such as Myanmar and Cambodia. This is especially true in the case of Myanmar due to human rights concerns, which have resulted in embargoes that have resulted in little political change. The U.S. needs a more pragmatic approach. These nations would be very receptive to American competition for their attention.

The United States and Japan remain the largest investors in the region and the largest ASEAN export receivers. China is not close to eclipsing the U.S. in hard power projection and America is still the largest source of popular culture. With respect to trade, some ASEAN members are not pleased that Early Harvest has allowed China to compete in raw materials, agricultural products, and minerals it did not produce, whereas China will eventually have lower tariff free access to manufacturing markets that ASEAN and Chinese firms were already competing in.

The U.S. has much more work to do on the free trade front. Thus far, America has only one FTA completed agreements, in the nearly 15 years since the U.S. initiated its first Asia-Pacific TIFA, with Singapore in 1991. There are stalled negotiations for FTAs with Thailand and Malaysia, and the Philippines and Indonesia have expressed interest in FTAs. Besides FTAs, policymakers have other eco­nomically significant agreements available, including the expansion of trade and investment framework agree­ments (TIFA) and open skies agreements (OSA). A TIFA is a consultative mechanism for the United States to discuss trade issues, and an OSA creates free markets for aviation services. America has TIFAs with ASEAN, but TIFAs and OSAs have been severely underutilized. Unlike China, the U.S. should work as multilateral as possible with ASEAN to avoid the negative effects of export diversion and encourage ASEAN unity.

Long term, the U.S. could do more in advancing the scope of FTAs and OSAs in Asia. A region-wide agreement would better reduce regional trade barriers, increase U.S.-ASEAN trade, and advance American security interests. The U.S. must stop blocking Japan’s attempts to project a competing vision of Asian unity, because it has not worked. The only result is Japan losing influence to China, which is not in Japan or America’s national interests. Instead, Washington can work with Japan to promote shared interests inside the ASEAN+3 framework, where Japan can serve as a U.S. proxy on specific issues critical to both nations. This would be a similar relationship to what the U.S. enjoys with Britain with respect to the European Union. Currently, Northeast Asia’s economic heavyweights are the world’s last remaining region that lacks an inter-governmental trade bloc, such as ASEAN. The U.S. does not want to find itself outside such a teaming, so it should be working with Japan to create one that is more inclusive. Even if FTAs are not politically feasible, the US should focus on TIFAs for high priority areas of interest.

Lastly, the U.S. should do what it must to gain Japan’s assistance in fighting any attempts for an tradable ACU, because that could limit U.S. government’s ability to finance its larger budget deficits at relatively low interest.

Notes:

As discussed in Part I of this series, the ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement (ACFTA) will be a win-win for the signatories. The agreement will produce greater economies of scales, as it expands trade between members, which will result in an aggregate increase in competitive export products from China and ASEAN. However, it will not foreshadow European-style regional integration, at least not in the near future. The centrifugal force generated by the agreement will not only draw ASEAN closer to China, the regions manufacturing hub, but it will push those states outside the bloc to liberalize their own trade in order to stay competitive. While the United States is generally supportive of ASEAN, it is not in the strategic interest of the U.S. for it to be outside of an Asian economic bloc, especially one that will aid in cementing a strong Chinese leadership position in Southeast Asia. Implementation of this agreement has increased concerns among some analysts that the economic and perhaps, the political center of gravity of the region are shifting away from the United States and toward China.

Over the last 10 years, Southeast Asia has received approximately US$90 billion in U.S. foreign direct investment (FDI); it is the third largest market for U.S. exports; and U.S.-ASEAN trade is over US$140 billion (Pitsuwan 2008). Southeast Asia is flush with agricultural and natural resources, and is home to more than half of the world’s annual merchant shipping traffic. Intraregional trade between ASEAN nations still hovers at 25% and in East Asia, it now verges on 55% (Pitsuwan 2008). Over 80% of Japanese and Chinese oil imports travel through these sea-lanes. The geopolitical reality is that due to proximity and economic clout, China’s access to this region will increase. This could not only be detrimental to America’s economic interests, but also represent a strategic threat.

It is in America and ASEANs best interest for the U.S. to not only promote further ASEAN integration, but also establish stronger ties with the region. This will enable ASEAN to serve as a fulcrum between China (and India). America must also realize that China’s increasing penetration into Southeast Asia is not a zero-sum game; the U.S. must be prepared to have a constructive working relationship with China in the region. If the America hopes to balance China’s growing influence it will need a rapprochement with ASEAN that displays a cohesive policy for the organization, but at the same time exploit the diversity of opinion within ASEAN. This will allow the U.S. to advance its policy goals in the region.

China

Over the last decade, China’s resurgent role in Southeast Asia has moved from a situation that generated fear in the region, to one where China is seen as a benign regional leader that plays a constructive role in creating opportunity. China has worked hard to market this image while participating in regional institutions. Its long-term goals are to create greater interdependencies between itself and Southeast Asia through economic incentives, which will give ASEAN a strong stake in China’s success. In this way, ASEAN can serve as insurance against possible U.S., Japanese, Indian containment in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean. At the same time, Beijing hopes it can simultaneously reduce the influence of the United States in the South China Sea.

China is increasing its political reach in the region through a series of strong bilateral ties with ASEAN member-states. These links include increased cooperation in regional security (including providing military training), scholarships, and helping to facilitate conflict resolution in the region. China has also promised over US$10 billion in infrastructure, energy, and cultural programs between the countries. China has especially provided special assistance to the lesser developed states of Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar.

During the 1997 Asian financial Crisis, America did not provide significant leadership, which left room for China advance itself as a regional leader, often at the expense of Japan. China promised not to devalue its currency, the Renminbi, which helped return stability to the markets, a move much praised in the region. Tokyo worked to provide a competitive framework for an Asian Monetary fund, in an effort to engender long-term stability. Washington repeatedly blocked this endeavor, out of fear it would be froze-out by a potential Asian bloc. Japan and China are still pushing their competing ideas of a greater-East Asia economic sphere, but the main difference between the two nations is that Japan wishes to include Australia, New Zealand, and India in an attempt to minimize the influence of China. Obviously, China is not interested in having none ASEAN and East Asian nations involved.

The idea for an Asian Monetary Fund did not die. In February 2008, the ASEAN+3 forum in Thailand agreed to expand bilateral currency swaps and also enlarge the Chiang Mai Initiative reserve fund in order to enhance regional economic stability in the wake of the current global financial crisis. This goal has prompted ASEAN+3, in coordination with the Asian Development Bank (ADB), to develop an Asian Currency Unit (ACU) as part of a comprehensive Asian Monetary Fund. China has promoted the idea, which has gained wide regional support. China championing this effort appears surprising considering past objections; however, Beijing is supportive of the ACU because it is now able to take a greater leadership role in its management than Japan, whereas it was not in a position to do so 10 years earlier. Although meant to be non-tradable, the ACU would be an indicator of the stability of participating currencies in the region, an Asian version of the European Currency Unit, which was the precursor to the Euro. Due to the wide variance in levels of economic development, the sophistication of financial transfer systems, and the levels of nationalism in the Pacific Rim, a single currency for the region is still unlikely.

What ASEAN Needs

Western analyst had long criticized and even dismissed ASEAN; the common narrative characterized the organization as soft on human rights and democracy, and therefore incapable of taking decisive and constructive action concerning regional issues that were important to the West. Some pasts areas of conflict involved human rights in Myanmar and East Timor, as well as issues of democracy in key members states like Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Part of the problem is that Western observers have not tended to judge ASEAN on its own merit, but instead, based on how it compares to the contemporary European Union (EU). As a result, ASEAN has never been fully respected by the United States.

For their part, not all ASEAN members have been eager to see a stronger American presence in the region. In the 1990’s, former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad called for a greater East Asian forum, which would exclude the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand. Many in the region termed this the “caucus without Caucasians”, something Washington successfully nixed, but to only see it rebooted a decade later as ASEAN+3.

At the time, the exclusion of Western nations reflected the regional vogue of “Asian Values”, an ideology trumpeted by Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, along with some political thinkers in Japan. Those who adhered to this ideology espoused that all Asians share distinctive cultural traits that make them fundamentally different from Westerners; therefore, Western political and social norms were not entirely appropriate for Asian societies. Some of these shared Asian values are a preference for social harmony, government paternalism, collectivism over the rights of individuals, respect toward authority, and a greater concern for socio-economic stability over human rights.

By the turn of the century, deeply pragmatic ASEAN states came to the realization that it was impossible to push Western powers out of the region, so it began what was termed, “constructive engagement” with all of them. Under this policy, ASEAN intends to hedge its relationship with the larger powers (China, India, America, and Australia) as an intermediary, reaping the benefits for its member states. Singapore Minister of Foreign Affairs George Yeo, speaking for ASEAN to the press in November 2007, described the importance of America to Southeast Asia: “In short, no major strategic issue in Asia can be resolved without the active participation of the U.S” (Marciel 2008).

America’s Next Move

In the aftermath of 9-11, the bulk of Washington’s foreign policy capacity was consumed by wars in the Middle East and Central Asia. Major initiatives in Southeast Asia fell by the wayside as the primary focus moved to counterterrorism and other security concerns. Even when America’s focus broadened beyond the “War on Terror” into issues of trade, its approach was often ineffectual. The U.S. cannot afford to squander another decade in the region teetering between security issues and weak trade.

The 2005, Joint Vision Statement on the ASEAN-U.S. Enhanced Partnership was not enough to secure America’s future in Southeast Asia; Washington needs to define, create, and utilize more avenues of regular dialogue between itself and ASEAN. Although the U.S. and ASEAN have enjoyed relations for 30 years, no regular annual summits have ever been established. Shoring up the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC) is a good place to begin, but it should only be a pass-through for more specialized U.S.-ASEAN talks. The current lack of contact hurts America’s ability to focus its attention on ASEAN states. The U.S. should encourage East/Southeast Asian integration, because it will help to socialize and constrain provocative movements by China. It may also encourage American investors to do greater business in the region, as the various types of independent national laws and regulations are streamlined. Nevertheless, America should also exploit areas of friction between ASEAN and China, as well as the lack of cohesion within ASEAN.

Although China has achieved strong ties with certain members of ASEAN, many nations in the region, such as Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam still maintain a healthy fear of Chinese hegemony and anti-Chinese sentiment in their populations has not yet abated. There have been complaints, by some ASEAN members, that China pushed bilateral FTA negotiations to isolate nations that were not very pro-China, such as Malaysia and Vietnam. Southeast Asian diplomats have also grumbled that China’s influence has hindered consensus building within ASEAN as member nations try to gage Beijing’s potential reaction.

The U.S. has also not closely engaged China-friendly states, such as Myanmar and Cambodia. This is especially true in the case of Myanmar due to human rights concerns, which have resulted in embargoes that have resulted in little political change. The U.S. needs a more pragmatic approach. These nations would be very receptive to American competition for their attention.

The United States and Japan remain the largest investors in the region and the largest ASEAN export receivers. China is not close to eclipsing the U.S. in hard power projection and America is still the largest source of popular culture. With respect to trade, some ASEAN members are not pleased that Early Harvest has allowed China to compete in raw materials, agricultural products, and minerals it did not produce, whereas China will eventually have lower tariff free access to manufacturing markets that ASEAN and Chinese firms were already competing in.

The U.S. has much more work to do on the free trade front. Thus far, America has only one FTA completed agreements, in the nearly 15 years since the U.S. initiated its first Asia-Pacific TIFA, with Singapore in 1991. There are stalled negotiations for FTAs with Thailand and Malaysia, and the Philippines and Indonesia have expressed interest in FTAs. Besides FTAs, policymakers have other eco­nomically significant agreements available, including the expansion of trade and investment framework agree­ments (TIFA) and open skies agreements (OSA). A TIFA is a consultative mechanism for the United States to discuss trade issues, and an OSA creates free markets for aviation services. America has TIFAs with ASEAN, but TIFAs and OSAs have been severely underutilized. Unlike China, the U.S. should work as multilateral as possible with ASEAN to avoid the negative effects of export diversion and encourage ASEAN unity.

Long term, the U.S. could do more in advancing the scope of FTAs and OSAs in Asia. A region-wide agreement would better reduce regional trade barriers, increase U.S.-ASEAN trade, and advance American security interests. The U.S. must stop blocking Japan’s attempts to project a competing vision of Asian unity, because it has not worked. The only result is Japan losing influence to China, which is not in Japan or America’s national interests. Instead, Washington can work with Japan to promote shared interests inside the ASEAN+3 framework, where Japan can serve as a U.S. proxy on specific issues critical to both nations. This would be a similar relationship to what the U.S. enjoys with Britain with respect to the European Union. Currently, Northeast Asia’s economic heavyweights are the world’s last remaining region that lacks an inter-governmental trade bloc, such as ASEAN. The U.S. does not want to find itself outside such a teaming, so it should be working with Japan to create one that is more inclusive. Even if FTAs are not politically feasible, the US should focus on TIFAs for high priority areas of interest.

Lastly, the U.S. should do what it must to gain Japan’s assistance in fighting any attempts for an tradable ACU, because that could limit U.S. government’s ability to finance its larger budget deficits at relatively low interest.

Notes:

Pitsuwan, Surin. 2008. “Bolstering U.S.-ASEAN Cooperation”

Japan Times Online.

Marciel, Scot A. 2008. “Remarks to Center o Strategic International Studies Meeting

‘U.S. and Southeast Asia: Toward a Strategy for Enhanced Engagement'”

U.S. State Department.

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