The US-ASEAN Business Council, a powerful Washington-based corporate association active in 10 Southeast Asian countries, has named Ted Osius as its new president and CEO.
Osius, a former US ambassador to Vietnam, assumed his new job Aug. 23, replacing Alexander Feldman, who led the council for 12 years. Feldman has since relocated to Singapore as president of Boeing Southeast Asia.
In a Sept. 8 interview, Osius told The Washington Diplomat that COVID-19 recovery efforts top the agenda of his organization, whose main mission is to promote US trade and investment in the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN): Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
“With the emergency response to covid, the private sector can help fill in some of the gaps, not necessarily in providing vaccines, but at least support for those who are in trouble—oxygen, PPE, home health kits, that sort of thing,” he said. “Our council’s been very involved in this, and our companies have been phenomenal. Once the epicenter shifted from India to Indonesia, we kicked into gear, and now we’ll be looking at other countries in ASEAN that need our help.”
In the longer term, Osius called for “greater openness” in trade policy by ASEAN member states to speed up the post-covid return to economic normalcy.
“ASEAN used to be characterized by openness, but there’s been a little retreat during covid, some hunkering down,” he said. “That’s natural. Governments are looking after their own people first. Regulations have sprung up overnight because countries are very worried. But harmonizing those regulations will help accelerate the recovery. Specific pieces need to be dealt with, like supply chains and moving people across borders.”
Formed in 1984, the US-ASEAN Business Council comprises 170 member companies. Together, they generate nearly $7 trillion in revenue and employ more than 14.5 million people. Besides Washington, the council has offices in New York, Bangkok, Hanoi, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Singapore and Yangon.
Feldman praised his successor as “uniquely positioned” to lead the influential organization, whosemember states boast a combined GDP of $3.2 trillion and cumulative US private-sector investment of $338 billion—which is more than US private-sector investment in China, India, Japan and South Korea combined.
“Ted is taking the mantle of one of the finest American trade associations at a particularly important time, as the Biden administration repositions America in the Indo-Pacific, and the global economy faces challenges to recovery posed by the pandemic,” Feldman said. “His extensive experience in Indonesia and Vietnam as well as on digital economy issues will be extremely important, as many council members are particularly focused on these areas.”
In fact, Osius, 60, knows the region like few other American diplomats. For one thing, he’s lived in five of the 10 ASEAN member countries: Indonesia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. From 2009 to 2012, he served as deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy in Jakarta, and from 2014 to 2017, Osius was US ambassador to Vietnam.
Before his current appointment, he was Google’s vice-president for public policy and government relations for the Asia-Pacific region.
Of the 662 million people living in ASEAN member states, some 58% of them—about 380 million—are younger than 35.
“These people are online, and they have high aspirations,” said Osius. “Within the Indo-Pacific region, you have very mature markets like Japan and South Korea. But the growth for many companies, including big tech companies, is in these developing countries. Indonesia, for example, is one of the fastest-growing internet economies on the planet.”
Ultimately, he said, the “bread and butter” of the US-ASEAN Business Council is about “advancing a pro-active trade agenda” in both Washington and Jakarta, where ASEAN is headquartered.
“There are big opportunities in the digital economy. When I was in Vietnam, we were working very hard to conclude the Trans-Pacific Partnership,” said Osius, referring to a proposed 12-nation trade accord that was the centerpiece of President Obama’s pivot to Asia, but which was immediately rejected by the Trump administration.
“There’s no going back in time, so now we’re trying to advance a pro-active trade agenda that might be politically possible,” he said. “One way is a digital trade agreement with ASEAN. The ingredients are already there, and there are some really good models to look at moving forward.”
He added: “There’s also an interest by the administration in environmental and labor issues. There could be a framework or sectoral agreement, but moving forward on trade is essential. Security isn’t just about planes and ships, but also about integrated economies, and countries working together on issues that matter.”
Osius has a bachelor’s degree from Harvard, a master’s from Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and an honorary doctorate from Ho Chi Minh City University of Technology and Education. The first openly gay US ambassador in Southeast Asia, Osius was also the first US envoy to receive Vietnam’s highly coveted Order of Friendship.
His latest book, “Nothing Is Impossible: America’s Reconciliation with Vietnam,” will be released next month and reflects on the ambassador’s unique experience and involvement in the US-Vietnamese history over the last 25 years. A trustee of the Asia Foundation, Osius enjoys travel, biking, sailing, theater and photography. He and his husband, Clayton Alan Bond, have a 6-year-old daughter and a 7-year-old son.
Before wrapping up, we asked what the United States—and specifically the US-ASEAN Business Council—could do about Myanmar, where security forces have killed more than 1,000 people in the seven months since the army seized power Feb. 1, leading opposition forces to declare a nationwide uprising against the ruling junta.
“Ultimately, there needs to be a path back to democracy that the military comes to accept,” said Osius. “That would probably include some incentives for heading in the direction of democracy, and some disincentives for not heading in that direction. It’s an option for the Biden administration to work closely with ASEAN to create that path. But the United States can’t do it independently.”