Operationalizing U.S.-ASEAN Connect: A Framework for Shared Prosperity

Posted by Ziad Haider
November 18, 2016

President Barack Obama, center, and leaders of ASEAN, the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations, wave as they pose for a group photo at the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, CA.

In February, President Obama hosted the ten leaders of the states comprising the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Sunnylands, California for the first-ever, U.S.-hosted U.S.-ASEAN Special Leaders’ Summit. The historic Summit reflects the growing importance of the U.S.-ASEAN relationship that was upgraded to a strategic partnership in 2015.

During the Summit, the President announced a new strategic framework for U.S. public and private sector economic engagement in ASEAN called U.S.-ASEAN Connect, also known as Connect. Connect seeks to advance the region’s aspiration to develop the ASEAN Economic Community. It reflects the strategic importance that the United States places on a strong and integrated ASEAN that can serve as a bulwark for stability in Asia and yield greater opportunities for two-way trade and investment.

In early August I participated in the ASEAN and East Asia Summit (EAS) Economic Ministers’ meetings and, in tandem with U.S. Ambassador to ASEAN Nina Hachigian, laid out the Connect achievements to date while previewing upcoming initiatives to positive reception. A month later, at the U.S.-ASEAN Leaders’ Meetings in Laos, President Obama announced additional Connect initiatives further demonstrating the importance of U.S.-ASEAN economic ties.

This past week, I had the opportunity to visit two key ASEAN countries — Indonesia and Singapore — to promote existing U.S.-ASEAN Connect activities and to explore new areas of cooperation under each of the four Connect pillars: Business Connect, Energy Connect, Innovation Connect, and Policy Connect.

Business Connect

In support of the Business Connect pillar, in both Singapore and Indonesia, I met with the U.S. business community to discuss the business climate in the region, to examine areas of opportunity and ongoing challenges, and to explore ways to expand collaborations that advance the interests of the U.S. private sector and ASEAN Member States. Among the sectors we discussed were infrastructure — including the energy and transport sectors, ICT, agriculture, insurance, and health. In my meeting with ASEAN Deputy Secretary General Lim, he praised the U.S. private sector’s engagement in ASEAN and indicated that Connect dovetails with the Secretariat’s own efforts. In particular, he cited the benefits of the ASEAN SME Online Academy — a Connect initiative launched by the US-ASEAN Business Council and USAID. The Academy serves as a one-stop resource linking small and medium-sized enterprises to regional and global supply chains, allowing users to take courses on topics ranging from finance to technology.

Energy Connect

Of relevance to the Energy Connect pillar, during my meeting with Indonesia Finance Ministry DG Robert Pakpahan, I learned about the incentives Indonesia is seeking to offer to attract foreign investment and expertise. This effort will help to meet President Jokowi’s goal of bringing 35 gigawatts of additional electricity online in Indonesia by 2019, and promote Public Private Partnerships in the infrastructure space. DG Pakpahan also shared his views on where he sees U.S. strengths in the infrastructure sector and invited additional U.S. investment. In my meeting with Thomas Lembong, Chairman of Indonesia’s Investment Coordinating Board, I learned about the various economic reforms underway in Indonesia. I was able to highlight our private sector’s broad-ranging support for Indonesia’s energy expansion efforts and its ability to provide more dependable power to meet growing household and industrial demand. I also advocated for U.S. companies pursuing procurement opportunities in Indonesia and the relative merits of their bids.

Innovation Connect

On the innovation front, I engaged in various activities both in Singapore and Indonesia. In Singapore, I toured MetLife’s LumenLabs, a Singapore-based incubator and accelerator that is a joint project between MetLife and the Government of Singapore. I participated in a roundtable discussion with a number of entrepreneurs and investors to learn how they are growing ASEAN’s innovation ecosystem and working to improve the lives of people so that they can age gracefully, productively, and in place. I also met with Dr. Pauline Tay, Deputy Director at Singapore’s National Research Foundation in the Prime Minister’s office, to better understand the Government of Singapore’s innovation agenda, and to explain how Connect’s American Innovation Roadshows and the Global Entrepreneurship Summit can help promote entrepreneurship and innovation across ASEAN and provide a basis for collaboration.

In my meeting with the Indonesian Ministry of Information and Communication Technologies, I learned about the Ministry’s ambitious plans to help SMEs join the digital economy, an effort projected to increase the country’s GDP by $120 billion by 2020. In the meeting, I also explored ways that U.S. companies might support this key growth initiative. During a working lunch with Indonesian investors and entrepreneurs, I gained a deeper understanding of the innovation ecosystem in Indonesia.

Policy Connect

In Singapore, I delivered opening remarks at a week-long conference on Intellectual Property protection. The course is part of the joint U.S.-Singapore Third Country Training Program designed to train ASEAN officials on key cross-cutting issues of importance throughout the region. The aim of last week’s training was to give participants the insights to improve Intellectual Property enforcement in their countries and across borders, and was attended by over thirty officials from nine ASEAN member states. This training supports our broader agenda under the Connect Policy pillar, to work with ASEAN countries to improve the policy and regulatory environment for growth, trade, innovation and investment supporting ASEAN Member States’ regional integration objectives under the ASEAN Economic Community.

Another key initiative under this Connect pillar is a Digital Economy Series which is being organized around the key issues ASEAN must tackle to build a successful and vibrant regional digital economy.  This cross-cutting initiative will feature a series of public-private capacity-building activities focused on e-commerce, digital entrepreneurship, mobile payments, and broadband connectivity, among other topics.


While in the region, I took the opportunity to speak at universities in Singapore and Indonesia about the benefits of U.S.-ASEAN economic cooperation. At the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, I gave remarks on “America and ASEAN: Partners in Prosperity.” In Indonesia I spoke on a similar topic to a group of business and international students at the Bina Nusantara University. In both cases I highlighted a broad range of U.S. public and private sector economic engagement in the ASEAN region, noting four key priorities of our economic engagement in the region — trade, investment, development, and connectivity. On the trade front, I noted that, as a block, ASEAN is the United States’ fourth largest trading partner for goods. I explained that ASEAN is the largest recipient of U.S. investment in Asia, and emphasized that U.S. investment is not only sizeable at nearly $220 billion, but tends to be quality investment that builds communities via local training and capacity building, as well as through Corporate Social Responsibility efforts. I cited key aspects of our development assistance, and noted that U.S.-ASEAN Connect is a key tool for expanding our public and private sectors’ economic ties through the four Connect pillars — Business, Energy, Innovation, and Policy.

This trip was full of opportunities to meet with government officials, entrepreneurs, and citizens to share initiatives focused on economic partnership and growth. The engagements highlighted for me the breadth and depth of U.S. public and private sector involvement with the ASEAN member states, as well as the potential to expand our collaboration even further through strategic efforts such as U.S.-ASEAN Connect.

About the Author: Ziad Haider serves as the Special Representative for Commercial and Business Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.
Editor’s Note: This entry also appears in the Department’s Foggy Bottom publication on Medium.com.