On November 3, Donald Trump will begin a 12-day trip to Japan, the Republic of Korea, China, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Hawaii. This trip will be a chance for Trump to discuss U.S. interests and partnerships and meet with leaders.

The 50th anniversary of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) will be a key moment in Trump’s trip. We discussed the history of ASEAN and the importance Trump’s performance with Ambassador Nina Hachigian.


Foreign Policy Interrupted: ASEAN stands for the Association of Southeast Asian nations. Could you explain how these Southeast Asian nations are associated? i.e. Economically like NAFTA? Or centered around National Security like NATO?

Nina Hachigian: The “ASEAN Community” is bound by political, economic, and social elements. What makes ASEAN unique is its overriding principle – that ASEAN member states’ will solve their differences without resorting to violence. ASEAN gets a lot of credit for maintaining peace for the last 50 years among an extremely diverse group of countries.

ASEAN is focused on fostering economic integration, but not to the same degree as the European Union. There is already a free trade area among the ten ASEAN nations for goods and services, and the countries are trying to harmonize their domestic regulations in many areas, but there are limits on the movement of labor and no plans for a common currency. Also, unlike the EU, ASEAN does not have a supra-national governing body. Various groups of member state officials, from heads of state, to ministers, to working level staff gather on a regular basis to debate policy and make decisions.

FPI: What is ASEAN’s relationship with the US?

NH: The US has been a “dialogue partner” of ASEAN since 1977. As part of his “rebalance to Asia” policy, President Obama strengthened the U.S. relationship with ASEAN by appointing a dedicated ambassador to the body, making the United States the first non-ASEAN country to do so. America later opened a mission in Jakarta, where I was posted and where the ASEAN headquarters is located. Numerous other countries such as China, Japan, Korea, India, Australia and South Korea have followed suit.

In 2015, ASEAN and the U.S. upgraded their ties to become “strategic partners” and President Obama launched U.S.-ASEAN Connect, a strategic economic initiative, as well as the U.S.-ASEAN Women’s Leadership Academy. America has an emerging leaders program with over 100,000 members across the ten countries.

As partners, the United States and ASEAN have sought to improve economic ties, cooperate on maritime issues, and address other “transnational” challenges such as terrorism and trafficking (in persons).

ASEAN states are generally very pleased to have continued U.S. engagement and presence in Southeast Asia. Most member states were disappointed with the U.S. decision to withdraw from the Trans Pacific Partnership but are open to new ideas.

FPI: As China grows economically, how has ASEAN changed? 

NH: China is not a member of ASEAN, but, like the United States, it regards the body with great interest, and ASEAN sees China as an important partner. China’s rise has been met with mixed feelings in the region. On the one hand, China’s growth has meant economic growth for the entire region. China’s investments in the region have been welcomed though there are environmental concerns regarding some of them. On the other hand, China’s growing military posture has made several ASEAN members uneasy.

FPI: How important is President Trump’s visit to the ASEAN summit in the Philippines?

NH: It is very important to ASEAN. It is the 40th anniversary of U.S.-ASEAN relations and ASEAN’s 50th anniversary, so President Trump’s presence sends an important signal about how American views the importance of the ASEAN region, its member states, and U.S. priorities.

ASEAN is a region and institution that benefits the United States. Trade with Southeast Asia, taken together, creates over a half million jobs in the United States. Having ten non-threatening countries at the center of Asia is geopolitically stabilizing. ASEAN works to convene all of Asia for important meetings of defense ministers, foreign ministers and others where the United States can articulate its priorities. ASEAN also helps with shared transnational threats. The ASEAN convention against human trafficking sets high standards for the member states. The Trump Administration is also working with ASEAN to enforce sanctions against North Korea and on other priorities such as maritime security and the marine environment.

FPI: How does being an ambassador to ASEAN differ from being an ambassador to a single bilateral country? What are your roles and responsibilities? 

NH: It is significantly different. I worked closely with my ten colleague U.S. Ambassadors to the ten ASEAN countries. But I was regularly dealing with about 20 countries rather than one – the ten ASEANs and then the other key ASEAN partners such as China, Japan, Australia, India, South Korea, Russia and New Zealand. The core focus of my work was building consensus for certain policies that matter to the region and to the United States. That required having a regional picture of the strategic interests of ASEAN member states, as well as those of the outside powers. It is a very policy-heavy job, which was ideal for me. I loved my time at the Mission and am happy to see how well they are carrying on building this important relationship.