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S China Sea, terrorism on the agenda as historic US-ASEAN summit kicks off

PALM SPRINGS (California) — Efforts by United States President Barack Obama to forge a stronger partnership with Asia will reach a high point tomorrow morning (Monday afternoon, California time), when the leaders of the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) converge in California for a historic summit.

S China Sea, terrorism on the agenda as historic US-ASEAN summit kicks off

Chinese dredging vessels are purportedly seen in the waters around Fiery Cross Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea in this still file image from video taken by a P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft provided by the United States Navy May 21, 2015. Photo: Reuters

PALM SPRINGS (California) — Efforts by United States President Barack Obama to forge a stronger partnership with Asia will reach a high point tomorrow morning (Monday afternoon, California time), when the leaders of the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) converge in California for a historic summit.

Over two days of informal talks, the leaders will look at how to promote innovation and entrepreneurship, as well as discuss key security and strategic issues, including territorial disputes in the South China Sea, combating the Islamic State terror group and North Korea’s nuclear programme and ballistic missile development, among other issues.

“It is an open discussion among the leaders,” said Mr Daniel Russel, the US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs in a briefing last week, referring to how the summit’s informal format is designed for more free-flowing discussions instead of scripted speeches.

China’s island-building activities in South China Sea, which US officials suspect could be turned to military use, will be a focal point of the summit at the historic Sunnylands estate near Palm Springs in California.

China says it has no hostile intent in the disputed waters but the US has mounted freedom of navigation patrols there in recent months to show that American vessels can sail in international waters any time they desire. Mr Obama is likely to urge ASEAN to present a unified stance against Beijing’s claims on most of the South China Sea.

“The US will pitch for explicit support for US actions in the South China Sea, but Obama may leave Sunnylands disappointed,” said Dr Tang Siew Mun, head of the ASEAN Studies Centre at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

“ASEAN’s complex relationship with China precludes the former for openly supporting US actions. However, ASEAN’s perceived hesitancy should not be construed as non-support,” he added, referring to the close political and economic ties some regional countries have with China.

Dr Tang said ASEAN leaders on the other hand would be looking for assurances for US’ continued engagement to the region.

The summit will kick off with a high-level session on innovation and entrepreneurship. This is followed by a working dinner to discuss the regional strategic outlook, before another high-level session on peace, prosperity and security in the region the following morning.

At Mr Obama’s invitation, Indonesian President Joko Widodo will lead a discussion on counterterrorism efforts in the region during Tuesday’s session. “We aim to share our experiences and to look for ideas to strengthen our capacity in countering terrorism,” said Mr Derry Aman, the director for dialogue partnerships and inter-regional cooperation at the Indonesian Foreign Affairs Ministry, last week.

Apart from Myanmar President Thein Sein, all ASEAN leaders, including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, will be attending the special summit, the first such one in the US. Myanmar will be represented by Vice-President Nyan Tun.

The atmosphere over the weekend in Palm Springs was one of anticipation, with residents saying that President Obama’s Air Force One has been sighted at the airport from Friday onwards. He had arrived in the desert resort area for a weekend of golf before receiving his ASEAN guests.

The fact that Mr Obama is hosting the ASEAN leaders in the 81ha Sunnylands estate — a place of personal significance to him as he is believed to have purchased a property in the area as a retirement home — is meant to signal the great importance he has placed in engaging ASEAN.

Since taking office, Mr Obama has made a strategic decision to “pivot” or “rebalance” the US’ foreign policy towards the Asia Pacific. He has visited ASEAN almost every year since 2009. Under his watch, the US acceded to ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation and joined the ASEAN-led East Asia Summit (together with China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, India and Russia). ASEAN and the US also elevated ties to a strategic partnership in November last year.

In a statement on Friday, the White House noted that since 2010, the Obama administration has provided US$4 billion (S$5.6 billion) in development assistance to ASEAN countries and strengthened people-to-people linkages, trade and defence ties with South-east Asia.

“We are partnering to address a growing number of shared global challenges,” said the statement.

With the US presidential race heating up, some observers say that the Sunnylands summit is also timed for Mr Obama to signal the importance of ASEAN to its successor.

At the same time, experts do not think the trajectory for Washington’s policy towards Asia is likely to change after Mr Obama steps down early next year.

“Our Asia Pacific policy has been bipartisan for almost 70 years… I can guarantee that any new administration will continue with the rebalance (towards Asia),” said Mr Charles Salmon Jr, an adjunct senior fellow at the East-West Center and former US Ambassador to Laos.

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