Sunny days in Sunnylands? ASEAN goes to America

US President Barack Obama attending the ASEAN-United States Leaders' Meeting at the Peace Palace, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, back in 2012.US President Barack Obama attending the ASEAN-United States Leaders' Meeting at the Peace Palace, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, back in 2012. State Department photo by William Ng

Next week on 15-16 February, US President Barack Obama will host a special US-ASEAN summit at the Sunnylands resort in California. It will be the first time that an ASEAN meeting is held in the US, and the first time that a US-ASEAN summit is not held as part of a larger ASEAN series of meetings.

All this underscores the importance that the US has been attaching to ASEAN. The venue of Sunnylands also holds some significance for international relations – it was where President Obama and China’s President Xi Jinping met for their G2 summits, over the past two years. More than mere symbolism perhaps?

The US-ASEAN Sunnylands summit was first mooted by President Obama when he visited Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for the ASEAN Summit held there in November last year. He invited ASEAN leaders to the US as part of his administration’s plan to elevate relations to a “strategic partnership”.

The US-ASEAN strategic partnership pact that was adopted at that Kuala Lumpur meeting spelled out a plan of action to deepen the relationship over the next five years, as well as identifying the areas of priority for cooperation on regional, global and transnational issues.

Since President Obama took office, his administration has appointed the first US ambassador to ASEAN, resident in Jakarta, and has instituted an annual summit between the president and ASEAN leaders.

Remember the “US pivot to Asia”?

Back in the early days of the Obama administer, the “US pivot to Asia” was all the rage. It was built on the recognition that the Asia-Pacific region would be the focus of political and economic clout for the rest of the 21st century.

But along the way, the US got distracted with the Arab Spring movements in the Middle East, followed by the long-drawn civil war in Syria that has now sparked off a refugee crisis in Europe, and of course the need to find a response to deal with the so-called Islamic State, urgently. Understandably so.

The “pivot” gradually died out from popular consciousness, though the strategic plans continued to be rolled out. Most notably, negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which brings four ASEAN countries – Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei – into the same trade agreement with the US.

The TPP has nevertheless met with resistance from those who objected in particular to the state of secrecy in which the agreement was negotiated.

Meanwhile in ASEAN, some of its member states have been increasingly embroiled in maritime disputes over the South China Sea, with China. The US has increased its military presence in the region, much to the annoyance of China.

The US had also struck an agreement with the Philippines to operate eight military bases on Filipino soil. It seems an era ago when the Filipino government evicted the US navy from Subic Bay in 1992, on a wave of nationalism.

Obama sets out his legacy on ASEAN and Asia

With just under one year left in office, President Obama would be expected to start sealing his legacy of his two terms in the White House. The Sunnylands summit next week seems very much an attempt to seal his legacy on building stronger ties with ASEAN, almost like a reprise to his earlier energies in enunciating the “US pivot to Asia”.

This will have implications for how the next US president handles the ASEAN portfolio, as well as for Asia at large.

The US is in the midst of the primaries for the election of their next president. The leading contenders for the Republican nomination are more anti-China than normally would be expected. On the side of the Democrats, even Hillary Clinton now opposes the TPP trade agreement, with pressure from the left of her party.

The TPP was meant to be one key highlight of the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” – of which Hillary Clinton was part of before stepping down as the US Secretary of State.