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US affirms pivot to region at special ASEAN summit

RANCHO MIRAGE (CALIFORNIA) — United States President Barack Obama yesterday signalled Washington’s intent to stay engaged and keep a high profile in South-east Asia where a rising China has rattled American allies, as he kicked off a historic summit at the sprawling Sunnylands estate with leaders of 10 South-east Asian countries.

US affirms pivot to region at special ASEAN summit

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (left) and US President Barack Obama at the Special US-ASEAN Summit in Sunnylands estate, California, yesterday. Photo: AFP

RANCHO MIRAGE (CALIFORNIA) — United States President Barack Obama yesterday signalled Washington’s intent to stay engaged and keep a high profile in South-east Asia where a rising China has rattled American allies, as he kicked off a historic summit at the sprawling Sunnylands estate with leaders of 10 South-east Asian countries.

“As President, I have insisted that even as the United States confronts urgent threats around the world, our foreign policy also has to seize on new opportunities. And few regions present more opportunity to the 21st century than the Asia Pacific,” said Mr Obama when opening the Special US–Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit.

“That’s why, early in my presidency, I decided that the United States, as a Pacific nation, would rebalance our foreign policy and play a larger and long-term role in the Asia Pacific,” he said.

“I’ve made now seven visits to the ASEAN region — more than any previous American President,” he said, before the White House announced that he will visit Vietnam in May. This is on top of a trip to Laos later this year, before he stepped down from office by early 2017.

Mr Obama, who appeared relaxed and confident as he welcomed his counterparts warmly to this desert oasis, lauded the “extraordinary progress” that the US and ASEAN have achieved together since he took power in January 2009.

He noted that in the past seven years, trade between the US and ASEAN has increased by 55 per cent, while ASEAN is now the US’ fourth largest goods trading partner. The US is the largest investor in ASEAN.

“Together, we can continue to increase the trade and economic partnerships that create jobs and opportunity for our people,” he said.

The Sunnylands summit — the first such one in America — began with a retreat session on promoting an innovative, entrepreneurial ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), followed by a working dinner hosted by Mr Obama to discuss the regional strategic outlook.

In his opening remarks in the Great Room at the Sunnylands centre, he also called for greater security cooperation to deal with common challenges.

“Here, at this summit, we can advance our shared vision of a regional order where international rules and norms, including freedom of navigation, are upheld and where disputes are resolved through peaceful, legal means,” he said. This was an indirect but clear reference to China’s assertive island reclamation and construction of military facilities in the disputed South China Sea, which have sparked concern that freedom of navigation may be curtailed in the region.

China said it has no hostile intent in the strategic waterways, which are also claimed by Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan. But the US has mounted freedom-of-navigation patrols there in recent months, to show that American vessels can sail in international waters at any time.

Speaking after Mr Obama, Laotian President Choummaly Sayasone said that his country, as the rotating chair of ASEAN, will work with other member states and the US to deliver concrete results following the recent elevation of ties between both sides to a Strategic Partnership.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted that the summit showed the US’ commitment and Mr Obama’s personal dedication to ASEAN.

“I hope that you (the US) will continue to build on and intensify your constructive engagement with ASEAN, as you have done under President Obama’s last two terms of government,” he said during the working dinner, adding that the recently signed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact was a major step forward in linking both sides of the Pacific. “We look forward to it being ratified by Congress as soon as possible.”

The TPP was signed earlier this month by 12 member nations, including the US, Japan, Singapore and three other ASEAN countries. It will now undergo ratification by the individual governments and a tough debate is expected in the US Congress.

Mr Lee said that as the TPP does not cover all the ASEAN countries, the region will be looking forward to the new “ASEAN-US Connect” initiative to deepen economic ties with the US.

Announced by Mr Obama during the summit, the initiative is aimed at enhancing the US’ economic engagement with ASEAN, by increasing trade and investment ties, as well as promoting innovation and entrepreneurship.

More details will be announced shortly, but TODAY understands that there will be centres set up in South-east Asia to drive the process.

Mr Lee also outlined three trends that he thinks will influence the strategic landscape in years to come: A closer and more effective ASEAN; a greater role for China in the region; and the emergence of India.

He expressed hope that the US will have a constructive relationship with other major powers as it stays engaged in Asia.

“The relationship with China is most important. At the same time, you have a key role to play in fostering stability in North-east Asia, especially given the issues in the Korean Peninsula, and particularly (over) the nuclear issue,” said Mr Lee.

On the South China Sea territorial dispute, Mr Lee said that the issue will need to be managed peacefully on the basis of international law.

“But, at the same time, we must remember that this is in the context of a cooperative relationship and not in a hostile way,” he added.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak told Malaysian media that, during the dinner discussions, ASEAN leaders renewed their call for self-restraint among all parties. “We all agree the principles of freedom of navigation should be respected,” he said. “We all believe that the countries concerned should not exacerbate tension in that area and when we talk about demilitarisation, it also applies to China and the US.”

Vietnam’s prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung suggested that the US use a stronger voice and “more practical and more efficient actions” in calling for a stop of “all activities changing the status quo,” the Vietnamese said on its news website.

The summit will conclude early today after the leaders meet for another retreat session on peace, prosperity and security in the region. The leaders are expected to issue a statement that will highlight a set of agreed principles between the US and ASEAN.

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