Summit and reality
US President Barack Obama is hosting the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations at the Sunnylands estate in Rancho Mirage, California—in a summit that US Department of State officials are calling “unprecedented.” It is the first time all 10 countries (although Myanmar or Burma is not represented by President Thein Sein) are taking part in a summit in the American mainland, and the first time the United States is hosting a dialogue with Asean countries at the highest level.
The summit is a strategic diplomatic initiative, at least from the point of view of American foreign policy. It represents not merely an advance in Obama’s so-called pivot to Asia, but the culmination of two presidential terms’ worth of engagement with key partners in the region.
A briefing paper from the White House listed highlights of the engagement, including Obama’s personal involvement. “In 2009, his first year in office, President Obama became the first US president to meet all 10 Asean leaders as a group; he has met Asean leaders a total of six times. He has made seven separate visits to the Asean region, more than twice the number of any previous US president.”
Trade and security top the summit agenda, concerns reflected in the briefing paper. “Asian countries are collectively the United States’ fourth-largest trading partner, with GDP growth that has exceeded the global average every year for the past 15 years. Trade in goods expanded 5 percent in 2015 and now tops $226 billion. During the Obama Administration, trade in goods with Asean countries has expanded by 55 percent.”
And, crucially: “Asean’s leadership of regional institutions is founded on respect for international law and norms and peaceful resolution of disputes, principles the United States shares … . The United States strongly supports Asean’s effort to realize a ‘rules-based’ community that serves the people of Asean.” This is code, of course, for an approach that counters China’s increasingly assertive actions in the South China Sea. In principle, all Asean countries are committed to the peaceful, nonaggressive resolution of conflicting claims in the region, and remain committed to the ideal of concluding with China a binding Code of Conduct to govern maritime and territorial conflict in the South China Sea.
But Beijing knows, perhaps better than Washington does, that Asean’s main strength, its consensus-building approach to matters large and small, is also the association’s main weakness. China has allies in the regional bloc, including Cambodia and Laos; while the Code of Conduct remains on the Asean agenda, China’s allies in Asean have proven themselves ready to sacrifice language or even opportunity for progress in the ongoing disputes just to please Beijing. And because there is a fundamental ambivalence on the part of these Asean members on the issue involving the South China Sea, actual progress on the Code of Conduct remains elusive.
And the United States knows only too well that its future is dependent to a large extent on its relations with China; the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia is, at bottom, also a pivot to China.
Indeed, the symbolism of the choice of summit site cannot be lost on the Chinese. The Sunnylands estate was also the venue of another important meeting: the breakthrough summit between Obama and Xi Jinping, the new paramount leader of China.
In this case, symbol is very much part of the new reality.
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