Friday 20 Jul 2018 | 18:29 | SYDNEY
Friday 20 Jul 2018 | 18:29 | SYDNEY

The US on track to the TAC


Graeme Dobell

1 July 2009 12:00

Within weeks, the US will reveal how close it is to signing ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC). The Secretary of State is due to head to Southeast Asia in three weeks for the annual Asia Pacific foreign ministers’ meeting hosted by ASEAN. The hints are that Clinton will either sign the TAC or announce a signature timetable.

If a timetable is unveiled, the obvious way to do the deed would be for the US to accede in November, when Barack Obama makes a triumphant return journey to Indonesia and goes to Singapore for APEC.

Either way, the TAC progress represents nifty footwork by Clinton and suggests Defense Secretary Robert Gates really is having an impact on the culture of the Pentagon. Gates is following through with his warning about 'creeping militarization' of US foreign policy and the need for diplomacy to lead.

And he's delivering on the promise made in his Singapore speech that the US is ready to embrace new norms in seeking security in Asia: ‘We are beginning to negotiate accession to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation – which demonstrates our willingness to take regional norms into account as we consider our relationships across the globe.’

During questions after his Shangri La speech, Gates said the US would take a ‘step by step’ approach to the issue of moving from the TAC to membership of the East Asia Summit. ASEAN logic says signing the TAC is the prerequisite for being invited to the EAS.

The key Pentagon point for Washington in signing the TAC is the contents of the accompanying letter setting out US interpretations (and hinting at reservations) about the treaty obligations. As a nation of lawyers, the US probably gives more weight to the law implied in the TAC than some of the ASEANs. There’s much lawyerly discussion of the remit of the High Council provision of the TAC. The fact that ASEAN has never bothered to convene the Council makes this an diverting, if arcane, discussion.

The US Congressional Research Service has just released a study of US accession to the TAC. It notes how US allies Australia, Japan and South Korea (and that ex-ally New Zealand) signed the TAC while also lodging a side letter setting out their understanding of the treaty obligations.

Indeed, the report publishes the text of the Australian reservation letter given to ASEAN when Alexander Downer signed in 2005. The Australian example is also invoked in making the argument that the provisions of the TAC will not prevent the US applying pressure to Burma. Acceding to the Treaty hasn’t stopped Australia from further tightening its sanctions regime against Burma.

A US that embraces new norms is in a position to ask some exceedingly interesting questions of Asia. What is worse for Asia than a US that says 'no'? It just might be a US that says 'yes'. A US that plays nice can be a tough proposition for China and for ASEAN. How do you respond to a superpower that gives what you have been asking for?

And the US, as the most powerful player in the game, can really push some of those regional buttons Kevin Rudd has been reaching for in speculating on the future structure of an Asia Pacific community.

Photo by Flickr user madmonk, used under a Creative Commons license.