Towards a Special ASEAN-US Summit in Sunnylands

The Khmer Times, 11 February 2016

Although ASEAN and the US established relations in 1977, officially they began in 2009 after the US acceded to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation and the first ASEAN-Leaders’ Meeting took place in the same year. ASEAN and the US held their first summit in 2013 and agreed to elevate their relationship to a “strategic partnership” last year.
A special ASEAN-US Summit scheduled to take place in Sunnylands, California next week will mark another milestone in ASEAN-US relations. It will be rich in substance. The summit is expected to issue an outcome document highlighting agreed principles and set directions for an ASEAN-US strategic partnership.
The summit will focus on economic cooperation and integration, particularly issues related to innovation and entrepreneurship, the ASEAN Economic Community, and peace and security in the Asia-Pacific. This will include discussions on North Korea’s nuclear program and maritime security in the South China Sea. Democracy, human rights, anti-terrorism, climate change, human trafficking, and water-resource security in the Mekong River Basin will likely be on the agenda as well.
The South China Sea dispute will be the most controversial issue at the summit. Although the US is not a claimant state, it has a high stake and role in maintaining freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. The US has put pressures on claimant states to halt construction of artificial islands and militarization in disputed areas. However, some ASEAN member states are not in line with the US approach in the South China Sea, calling it as “adding fuel to the fire.”
Regardless of the differences in relation to the South China Sea, the summit will be a great opportunity for ASEAN to prove the relevancy – or even centrality – of its role in shaping the regional architecture in the Asia-Pacific and to alert the future US presidents either from the Democrat or Republican parties that ASEAN does matter for the US.
The US is the fourth-largest trading partner of ASEAN, with a trade volume of more than $215 billion a year, and the third-largest source of foreign direct investment in ASEAN – in 2014 US FDI in ASEAN totaled $13.04 billion.
One of main legacies of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy is his achievement in forging a closer relationship and partnership with ASEAN. He wishes to see the future generation of leadership in the US continue to strengthen this partnership and emphasize ASEAN as the “fulcrum” of evolving regional security architecture.
The Strait Times put it this way: “His successor, if so minded, might then find it difficult to diverge substantially from the direction of a singularly fruitful relationship, set during the tenure of one of America’s most internationalist and Asia-friendly presidents.”
“If former secretary of state Hillary Clinton wins the ticket for the Democratic party and eventually the presidency, ASEAN leaders would not have to worry about the sustainability of the US commitment to engage ASEAN, but if the Republican Party wins, the likelihood of ASEAN to remain central to US foreign policy looks remote” wrote Heru Prama Yuda in the Jakarta Post.
Observers expect to see ASEAN and the US take concrete steps to further advance their partnership for peace, stability, and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific. The advancement of an ASEAN-US strategic partnership demonstrates Washington’s commitment to rebalancing its strategy towards Asia.
John Brandon, a senior director of the Asia Foundation, stated: “The US-ASEAN Summit is a good signal for cooperation between the US and ASEAN. While symbolism is important, next week’s summit at Sunnylands needs to be more than symbolic.”
Nopporn Wong-Anan, deputy editor of the Bangkok Post, said: “Given the rising economic and political influence of China in Southeast Asia, US-ASEAN relations are vital to Washington’s economic competitiveness in the region and an essential part of addressing key security issues, including maritime disputes in the South China Sea, human trafficking, terrorism and climate change.”
Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Centre for a New American Security, told The Straits Times: “The United States has locked in enhanced engagement with ASEAN members and, as a result, Southeast Asian leaders know they should look to Washington if they want to preserve a stable security environment and expand trade and economic development. Whoever succeeds Obama will want to build on this sturdy foundation.”

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