6 ASEAN secrets Trump should know

PHOTO: The Straits Times

New US President Donald Trump must be "fantastically" happy with a "wonderful" ASEAN because it is the only "great" regional organisation that has no military might and has not been at war.

The problem is, he might not know about the grouping at all.

Here is a 6-point dossier on the 50-year-old ASEAN and its top secrets.

Trump sworn in as 45th US president

  • President Donald Trump assumed power Friday with a fiercely nationalistic vow to put "America first," declaring a new political era after being sworn in as the 45th US head of state.
  • Hundreds of thousands of people stood in the rain-splattered National Mall to see the 70-year-old Republican billionaire take the oath of office and deliver a stridently populist call-to-arms.
  • Former US president Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn arrive for the inauguration of President Trump.
  • Former US president Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
  • Former US President George W. Bush and his wife Laura.
  • Bush put up a struggle with his poncho.
  • American casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, a donor to the Trump campaign.
  • Senators Bernie Sanders and John McCain.
  • "From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land," Trump said, promising an end to business-as-usual in Washington.

    "From this moment on, it's going to be only America First."

  • "Today we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another or from one party to another, but we are transferring power from Washington, DC. And giving it back to you, the people."
  • While the US capital city no longer provides official crowd counts, the turnout was visibly smaller than for Barack Obama's two inaugurations, in 2009 and 2013, with sections of the Mall and bleachers along the parade route left empty.
  • And as the incoming leader rallied his supporters for the swearing-in, throngs of his opponents also converged on Washington.
  • Most of the protests - by an array of anti-racist, anti-war, feminist, LGBT, pro-immigration and marijuana legalization groups - were noisy but peaceful, though sporadic violence marred the day.
  • Between 400 and 500 masked, black-clad protesters carrying anarchist flags smashed windows, lit fires and scuffled with riot police in downtown Washington, blocks from the parade held in Trump's honour, with over 90 people arrested for vandalism.
  • Even the peaceful protesters were intent on spoiling Trump's party - letting out a deafening roar as the presidential limousine known as "The Beast" rolled by on the way to the White House.
  • "Not my president! Not my president!" they yelled, as the pro- Trump crowd in bleachers across the street chanted "USA! USA!".
  • Trump's inauguration caps the improbable rise to power of the Manhattan real estate magnate who has never before held elected office, served in government or in the armed forces.
  • His speech was far from the typical optimistic inaugural address that tries to bridge political divides and lift Americans' gaze up to the horizon.
  • It was a deliberate and striking contrast from the uplifting message of Obama, the outgoing president who was among the dignitaries in attendance.
  • Obama and his wife Michelle departed the Capitol by helicopter moments after the swearing-in ceremony, turning a page on eight years of Democratic leadership in the White House.
  • At a Congressional luncheon afterward, Trump led a standing ovation for his defeated election rival Hillary Clinton, saying he was "honoured" that she and her husband, former president Bill Clinton, attended his inauguration.
  • When Trump descended the escalators of his glitzy New York tower in June 2015, his run for office was roundly dismissed and even mocked.
  • Trump and First Lady Melania Trump dance during the Armed Forces ball at the National Building Museum.
  • Trump, the first lady Melania Trump, US Vice President Mike Pence and his wife Karen cut a cake after dancing at the Armed Services ball.

First, ASEAN is not too weak and is not too strong as a regional organisation.

It was established in 1967 out of a desire to prevent conflicts and wars and to promote peace and stability.

After three days of "sport-shirt" diplomacy in Bang Saen in August five decades ago, as former Philippine President Fidel V. Ramos described it, the foreign ministers from the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore signed the Bangkok Declaration.

This 752-word document, excluding their long names, has saved the region from the scourges of many potential wars.

Second, ASEAN members talk a lot among themselves.

Outsiders often describe the regional grouping as a talk shop.

Indeed, it is. But that is nothing to be ashamed of.

Those talks have not been in vain as they have effectively prevented wars and promoted co-operation.

There would be fewer talks in the future, meaning fewer meetings, if the current ASEAN chair, the Philippines, has its way.

On an average day, at least two or three meetings are being held.

That makes it approximately 1,200 annually.

Last year, Laos cut it down to less than 1,000 meetings.

It is an open secret that sometimes when ASEAN members agree, they do so not because they thought it was the best solution but, rather, it was the lowest denominator that all members would accept.

Third, ASEAN has a longstanding tradition: It does not promise what it cannot deliver.

It is a bit different from Trump's style of leadership, which is: Say it out loud first and then follow up on those promises.

In ASEAN, action speaks louder than words.

That is the reason the regional grouping has so many action plans.

For the ASEAN Vision 2025, a total of 571 action plans have been identified for the next 10 years.

That explains why ASEAN goes slow before any decision is reached.

Fourth, ASEAN is not a military alliance akin to Nato, or the Northern Atlantic Treaty Organisation.

So, ASEAN is not taking any advantage of the United States, and it is an important US strategic partner-a pillar of the US rebalancing policy.

It is not a military burden to the advance of American greatness, nor does it pose any threat to the United States.

Fifth, ASEAN is good for Trump's America, as it has created jobs both in blue and red states.

US trade with ASEAN has already created 500,000 jobs for American people.

ASEAN is the fourth largest trade partner of the United States, worth about $226 billion (S$319 billion) in 2015.

And American companies are the biggest beneficiaries of the grouping's prosperity and modern lifestyle.

More and more American companies want to invest in ASEAN, not stay away.

In 2014, they pumped in nearly $25 billion.

With the economies of new ASEAN members such as Vietnam and Myanmar growing, investment opportunity will be augmented even more.

As a grouping, ASEAN is Asia's third largest economy after China and Japan, and the seventh largest in the world with a combined GDP of US$2.4 trillion.

Sixth, each year ASEAN hosts one of the world's most important leader-only security forums, known as the East Asia Summit (EAS).

Leaders from ASEAN and its dialogue partners, including the United States, China, Russia, Japan and India, will go to the capital of the ASEAN chair to forge common positions on critical global issues such as epidemics, terrorism and climate change.

If Trump decides not to attend the EAS at Clark Air Base (he can easily find an excuse given his calibre) during his first year of presidency, it would be a big loss to US security interests.

Other participants are eager as always to inject their ideas and energy into the emerging security framework.

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