Congress Launches ASEAN Caucus

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by ANH PHAM
National flags of ASEAN member states at the ASEAN headquarters [Image: Wikimedia user Gunkarta]

The long-awaited bipartisan congressional caucus on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was launched on January 26th in Washington D.C. with the official announcement by cofounders Congressman Joaquin Castro of Texas and Congresswomen Ann Wagner of Missouri. The caucus, devoted to issues related to Southeast Asia, aims to strengthen relations between ASEAN and the United States.

The idea of the ASEAN caucus was first proposed by Indonesia — the then Chair of the ASEAN Committee — two years ago in a meeting held in Washington D.C. The then-Indonesian Ambassador to the US, Budibowo Leksono, pointed out that only 26% of Congress members paid close attention to ASEAN, although the US and ASEAN share strategic partnerships and vibrant exchanges in trade, investment, and education. In addition, ASEAN member states such as Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, have already had their own congressional caucuses. To date, ASEAN remains strategically important to the US. The 4th largest export market for the US, demand from the region provides 400,000 jobs for Americans. In particular, over 6 thousand jobs in Missouri and over 70 thousand jobs in Texas were supported by exports to ASEAN.

Potential advantages the caucus could deliver for US-ASEAN relations are many. First, the caucus would keep ASEAN member states updated with political developments in the US. Second, the caucus would help capture the attention of US legislators who have been heavily focused on domestic issues. Third, the caucus would help carry on the US-ASEAN talks and bypass political sensitivities in the event of any hiccup in bilateral relations between the US and ASEAN member states.  

The new caucus has received strong support from existing institutions such as the US-ASEAN Business Council for the political implications and the timing of the launch. This year marks the 50th anniversary of ASEAN and the 40th anniversary of formal US-ASEAN relations.

Anh Pham is a Research intern at the East West Center in Washington, DC and Master's Candidate in International Affairs at the School of International Service, American University.