Remarks by U.S. Ambassador to ASEAN Nina Hachigian on the “U.S. Rebalance to Asia”

Royal University of Phnom Penh
October 26, 2016

Thank you very much, Julie, for that generous introduction and thank you, CISS President Kung Phoak and Excellency Suos Yara!

Good Morning Excellencies, esteemed guests, ladies and gentlemen and thanks to you all for making time to be here with me today.

I am very honored to be hosted today by the Cambodian Institute for Strategic Studies, a leading research institution, and the Royal University of Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s oldest university.

I want to sincerely thank them both for their hospitality.

Being from the research and think tank world myself, I feel very much at home among you.

I truly love my current job, but there are times I wish I had the luxury that many of you do, of stepping back from the day to day and reflecting on broader ideas and trends.

Because they can take the woman out of the think-tank but they can’t take the think-tank out of the woman, I will take on two larger ideas today:

Why rules are important to foreign policy and why ASEAN matters to the U.S.

I recognize, though with humility that it may be challenging to envision the bigger picture when I am busy drawing a small part of it myself.

I lead the U.S. Mission to Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and we partner with ASEAN and others to advance U.S. interests in a peaceful, prosperous, and integrated Southeast Asia that respects the rule of law, upholds the dignity of its people and actively addresses regional and global challenges.

Almost 50 years ago, ASEAN formed around the aspiration that through “the collective will of the nations of Southeast Asia” they would “bind themselves together in friendship and cooperation and, through joint efforts and sacrifices, secure for their peoples and for posterity the blessings of peace, freedom and prosperity.”

ASEAN has long been a foundation for prosperity and order in the Asia-Pacific.  And the United States, with over 12,000 kilometers of Pacific coastline, has been ASEAN’s partner for nearly forty years.

Our national interests demand that we keep supporting ASEAN and the economic, security, and political order that it sustains, now and into the future.  This truth was apparent to President Obama from the very start of his administration.

When he initiated the Rebalance to Asia, he not only recognized that America needed to pay more attention and be more engaged in Asia, he also understood that within Asia, Southeast Asia was not getting the focus it deserved. Together we have accomplished a great deal in the last eight years.

The United States became the first non-ASEAN country to appoint a dedicated Ambassador to ASEAN.  We opened a separate Mission to ASEAN.

President Obama was the first U.S. President to meet with all ten ASEAN leaders, and he has attended the U.S.-ASEAN Summit and the East Asia Summit multiple times.

In fact, he has come to Southeast Asia more than any other U.S. President has, and became the first sitting U.S. president to ever visit Laos.

ASEAN and the United States elevated their relationship to be strategic partners in 2015, and then we had the first stand-alone U.S.-ASEAN Summit in California at Sunnylands this past February where Prime Minister Hun Sen and all the other leaders of ASEAN gathered for two days of intimate conversation.

But even with all that, I think the best days of the U.S.-ASEAN partnership are still to come.

That is because ASEAN has a very bright future ahead as it builds the Community of Opportunity.

I have met hundreds of ASEAN’s talented young leaders, and I am fully confident that their creativity, ingenuity and passion will propel this region to new heights.   The next generation of ASEAN leaders, including many of you, will continue to forge peace, within ASEAN and within Asia.  You will triumph over intolerance, holding violent extremism at bay.

You will work to ensure that women and disadvantaged populations have equal opportunity.  You will pull millions more out of poverty through strong economic growth, stimulated by the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) and a high quality trade network.

Under the AEC of the future, ASEAN economies will be highly integrated, relying on each other for markets and suppliers.

Students will be free to travel throughout ASEAN to get an education, and foreign investment will continue to help create jobs, provide training and offer technology.

It will be easy to start a business, and small businesses will be integrated into the regional economy.

More and more ASEAN citizens will have access to the open Internet and other technologies–to find markets for their products and new ways to solve problems.

At the same time, ASEAN leaders will work hard to make the water in ASEAN cleaner, the sky over big cities bluer, and, in turn, citizens healthier.

They will ensure forests, oceans and the Mekong river remain sources of food and livelihood for millions in the region by finding ways to use them sustainably.

The next generation will continue to convene all the powers in Asia at the ASEAN table to talk through our common challenges and our differences.

To achieve this vision which I have just outlined, which is the vision that ASEAN articulated in the ASEAN Community Vision 2025 last year, the U.S. will be by your side, helping ASEAN to achieve all this and more.

Today’s ASEAN has given its future leaders a running start.  ASEAN has kept the peace for nearly 50 years.

But ASEAN knows that to reach the bright future that its young people want to create, it must also realize the very first aspiration in the Political-Security Community Vision, which is this:

“A rules-based community that fully adheres to ASEAN fundamental principles, shared values and norms as well as principles of international law governing the peaceful conduct of relations among states.”

Now why is this notion of rules and laws so important that ASEAN chose to make it the first goal?

It’s because, as we know, within countries, developing rule of law spurs economic growth by reducing corruption and giving local and foreign investors the predictability and transparency they need.

It also guarantees that the state cannot deprive citizens of their rights without due process.

But Asia, and, the rest of the globe, also needs common rules of the road among nations.

The ASEAN Economic Community, the AEC itself, is a project to create a platform of common rules, laws and standards so ASEAN can enjoy the benefits of closer integration.

High standards trade agreements, like TPP, create a race to the top.

Common rules facilitate investment.

We need rules among nations for security reasons too, because the major threats to a bright future come from forces that no nation can battle on its own-globally networked violent extremists, climate change, virulent viruses, nuclear proliferation, narcotics trade and human trafficking.

But for nations to cooperate effectively together on these tough challenges, they need trust.

It takes trust to share sensitive information about terrorist activity, to believe each other’s commitments on climate change, to prosecute criminal networks across national boundaries.

Without trust, cooperation stalls.  Now, you students of international relations know that trust is hard to build among nations, especially among nations, as in the Asia-Pacific, with different histories, geographies and political systems.

But ASEAN has done just that. Regional institutions like ASEAN as well as global institutions like the UN, IAEA, WHO, and Interpol help to create this trust by establishing rules of the road and by coordinating cooperation.

If nations know that they can count on others to follow the rules and fulfill their own commitments, then they will too.  That predictability and sense of fairness creates trust that fosters cooperation.

There is a final reason that international law and common rules are important.  We in the Asia-Pacific are fortunate to live in period that is not dominated by direct conflict among nations. But the memories of earlier decades of strife are still fresh.  So we cannot be complacent.  We have to prevent conflict among nations proactively, not assume peace will sustain itself.

A step we can take to preserve peace is for all nations to respect international law and to resolve their disputes through peaceful legal and diplomatic processes.

That is why the United States viewed the July 12 arbitral award on some of the disputes in the South China Sea as hopeful and important.

It showed that humanity has created peaceful ways to manage and resolve disputes among nations when diplomacy isn’t working, which it wasn’t.  No longer does might automatically make right. To keep the peace and to build trust, to reap the economic benefits of stability, nations must heed their obligations under international treaties.  The U.S. has not ratified the Law of the Sea Convention, though I hope Congress will one day, but the United States does follow its provisions as customary law.

Of course, the existing web of rules and institutions that we have is not enough.  We will need to establish new guidelines for the places where the law isn’t yet fully defined, like cyberspace and outer space and ungoverned areas of the high seas.  We must strive to agree on norms, standards and law so a mere accident in one of these arenas cannot trigger a crisis and so we can, together, bring malevolent actors to justice.

This is why we hope ASEAN and China really do make a speedy and meaningful progress on a binding Code of Conduct as they announced in Laos in September.

Diplomacy, bilateral negotiations—they are absolutely critical, no question.  But when nations respect international law and common rules, it creates a broad sense of fair play because all countries have the same responsibilities.   Adhering to rules and norms will tame rivalry and foster cooperation toward the Asia-Pacfic’s bright future.

So, in short, ASEAN plays a vital role in advancing rules and norms as the basis for order among nations in the Asia Pacific.

In the Sunny lands Declaration, leaders pledged “Firm adherence to a rules-based regional and international order that upholds and protects the rights and privileges of all states.”  Laws, rules and norms provide the connective tissue of the ASEAN Community.  It is through their harmonization that countries are integrating and creating trust.   And trust is what forms a true Community. People ask me why ASEAN matters to the United States.  And what I’ve been discussing is one key reason—ASEAN shares our commitment and belief in the importance of rules. But there are many other reasons that motivate the U.S. commitment to our strategic partnership with ASEAN, and I will talk about three.

First, our relationship with ASEAN promotes shared prosperity.  ASEAN is America’s fourth largest trading partner and America is the largest cumulative investor in ASEAN. Our relationship has created millions of jobs in all ten countries of ASEAN and in every one of our 50 states. So the United States has a great deal at stake in ASEAN’s economic success.

For this reason, at the special ASEAN-U.S. Summit at Sunnylands in California earlier this year, President Obama announced US-ASEAN Connect, a strategic framework that will utilize American expertise to help ASEAN achieve its goals of an innovative and dynamic integrated economy.

Through Connect we will continue to offer training to ASEAN Small and Medium Enterprise owners and entrepreneurs, conduct workshops on the Trans Pacific Partnership for ASEAN member states who are not yet signatories, help ASEAN establish a customs “Single Window” to cut red tape, support women entrepreneurs, and host programs like the Innovation Challenge, sponsored by USAID, Intel and Cisco, in which young people are competing to design solutions for improving food security in ASEAN.

A second reason the United States values ASEAN is its role as the central architect of the regional security order in the Asia-Pacific.  ASEAN institutionalizes cooperation, threatens no one, dedicates itself to non-violence and seeks strategic independence.

ASEAN forms the stable center of a region where multiple big powers—China, Russia Japan, India and the United States–each have a large stake.

Now, let me be clear that ASEAN and ASEAN countries seek to have good relationships with all the major powers.  And that is a good thing. There is not a zero-sum dynamic at work here.

If a relationship between one big power and an ASEAN country improves, it does not mean that relationships with all the others get worse.

And the major powers have different issues on which we are more or less aligned with the ten countries and with ASEAN as a whole.  So that is par for the course. But ASEAN also has a role in ensuring that big powers act according to what is best for the region.

Whereas it could be difficult for any individual ASEAN country to stand up to a big power when it takes actions that increase tensions and risks, ASEAN as a group can and has, and the region is better for it. ASEAN also coordinates action on key transnational challenges like terrorism, human trafficking, and illegal fishing.

Last but not at all least in the reasons ASEAN matters is its wonderful people.  As President Obama said, the Rebalance is “a partnership not just with nations, but with people…for decades to come.”  And another central part of ASEAN’s Community vision is for it to be “people-centered.” Our Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative, YSEALI, is helping ASEAN to create an ASEAN identity from the ground up.

Now nearly 100,000 young leaders from all ten ASEAN countries can interact with their peers both online and in regional workshops on topics like the environment, green economies, oceans, building civil society, and women’s leadership.

Some even have a chance to talk with the President of the United States at yearly Summits in ASEAN, like in Laos.  At that event last month, President Obama urged YSEALI participants to lead the efforts to tackle climate change and other regional challenges.

YSEALI is just one of our many programs for young people in ASEAN.  For example, several weeks ago in Jakarta, we welcomed our third group of ASEAN-U.S. Science and Technology fellows—ASEAN scientists whom the U.S. sponsors to spend a year in their own government ministries, to support science-based policy-making.

Dr. Hul, the Director of the Research and Innovation Center at the Institute of Technology of Cambodia, through his S&T Fellowship, will learn about policy making for water quality treatment and management.

Cambodian researchers have also examined diverse topics ranging from Biodiversity to Biology Education to Energy Efficiency as U.S. – ASEAN Fulbright Scholars.

The United States also supports women’s opportunity in ASEAN.

I have met many of ASEAN’s dynamic women leaders who have showed me how ASEAN women are preparing to take advantage of the ASEAN Economic Community to participate more fully in the market place and in society.  And I am looking forward to visiting the WeCreate Center for women entrepreneurs later today.

In addition, the ASEAN-U.S. Science Prize for Women recognizes a promising, ASEAN-based, early-career woman scientist in her efforts to advance regional science and technology capacity, and I’ll be headed to Siem Reap tomorrow to help award this prize, sponsored by one of our companies, UL.

Most recently, just last week, I had the pleasure of meeting 4 young Cambodian women leaders when they joined us in Jakarta for the U.S. – ASEAN Women’s Leadership Academy for YSEALI.

My mission worked on the pilot project last year and helped to execute this next phase, so when President Obama announced the Academy at his speech in Vientiane I was proud.  But my pride and enthusiasm only grew when I met this year’s participants.  Lina, Sanary, Sorphorn, and Srey represented Cambodia very ably.

These smart, motivated, talented women – the cream of the crop of private and public sector, contributed enthusiastically with 36 stars from the 9 other ASEAN Member States, forming professional and person relationships that know no borders or bounds.

Along with all the good news and cooperation, challenges in this region remain.  But even when it comes to difficult issues, the United States supports ASEAN centrality, unity, integrity and credibility.

The United States will continue its partnership with ASEAN because of its people, because of our close economic ties, and because of its dedication to being a rules-based community that respects international law.

We want Asia to continue to enjoy the peace that has allowed so many to prosper, and ASEAN is a critical part of that.

So through the rest of the Obama Administration, through our 40th anniversary year next year under a new Administration, and for decades to come, you can count on us.

The United States will remain steadfast in its support – and aspirations – for the ASEAN Community, ASEAN Centrality and the people of ASEAN.