ASEAN and US Enter “Watershed Year” After Summit

The Khmer Times, 17 February 2016

The two-day summit between leaders from ASEAN and the US in Rancho Mirage, California marks a “watershed year” for ASEAN and the US, heralding a new era of enhanced partnership. The first day of the summit focused on trade and economic issues, and the second day concentrated on maritime security issues and the disputes in the South China Sea.
The US and ASEAN are working closely to ensure that ASEAN remains central to the evolving regional architecture and takes a leadership role in building a new regional order. US President Barack Obama told his ASEAN counterparts that they had a “shared vision of a regional order where international rules and norms, including freedom of navigation” are adhered to.
In the joint statement, or Sunnylands Declaration, the US and ASEAN reaffirmed their respect and support for “ASEAN Centrality and ASEAN-led mechanisms in the evolving regional architecture of the Asia-Pacific,” and promotion of “a rules-based regional and international order.”
A wide range of global and regional issues were discussed, including maritime security, economic cooperation and integration, climate change, anti-terrorism, human rights and democracy, inclusive and sustainable development, cyber security, and people-centered ASEAN.
Economic and maritime security issues took center stage at the Summit. “Economic growth that is inclusive, creating opportunity for all; mutual security and the peaceful resolution of disputes; human dignity, including respect for human rights and development that is sustainable – that is our vision,” Mr. Obama added.
The US is ASEAN’s fourth-largest trading partner with bilateral trade volume totaling up to $220 billion last year. US companies have invested over $226 billion in ASEAN while ASEAN countries invested over $24 billion in the US as of 2014.
Innovation and entrepreneurship, and regional free trade arrangement are the core areas of economic cooperation and integration. Maritime security cooperation particularly the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea is the core issue in security cooperation.
The US has been pressing the claimant states particularly China to halt construction of the artificial islands and avoid militarization of the disputed areas.
Vietnam and the Philippines called for the US intervention in preventing China from militarizing the South China Sea. Malaysia held the position that both China and the US should not take actions that further complicate the disputes.
“We all agree the principles of freedom of navigation should be respected. We all believe that the countries concerned should not exacerbate tension in that area and when we talk about demilitarization, it also applies to China and the US,” Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak told the New Strait Times.
The Sunnylands Declaration, although it does not directly refer to China and the South China Sea, has two long paragraphs on maritime security in the region that send a clear message.
It emphasizes “peaceful resolution of disputes, including full respect for legal and diplomatic processes, without resorting to the threat or use of force in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law and the 1982 United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea.”
The leaders expressed their “shared commitment to maintain peace, security and stability in the region, ensuring maritime security and safety, including the rights of freedom of navigation and overflight and other lawful uses of the seas, and unimpeded lawful maritime commerce as described in the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea as well as non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of activities.”

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