15 February 2016
The element of signaling surrounding the first U.S.-ASEAN summit in Sunnylands, California was strong. The White House decision to host ASEAN leaders at the same venue where U.S. President Barack Obama previously received Chinese president Xi Jinping symbolized the increasingly pivotal role the U.S. was according ASEAN as an institution.
Visiting Laos and Cambodia, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry laid some of the groundwork for the Sunnylands summit. With Laos as ASEAN chair this year, many observers worry about a repeat of ASEAN’s failure in 2012, under Cambodia’s chairmanship, to agree to a communiqué on the disputes surrounding the South China Sea. Kerry’s consultations were thus important to encourage Laos and Cambodia to show unity in response to China’s growing assertiveness in the region. This is an important prerequisite to pushing for effective implementation of the Declaration of Conduct and early conclusion the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.
The recent freedom of navigation operation on January 30, during which the guided-missile destroyer USSCurtis Wilbur sailed within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island in the Paracels, controlled by China but also claimed by Vietnam, also highlighted the U.S. efforts to build momentum. While China reacted with predictable outrage, Vietnam expressed its support for the right of innocent passage through its territorial waters in accordance with international law.
Although it is unlikely that the summit will produce any definitive statements, for the U.S. this meeting is important in two senses. First, the unprecedented summit reflects Obama’s personal belief in the importance of engaging Southeast Asia countries via overarching rule-based regional institutions in order to balance its bilateral engagement with allies. Second, it is an opportunity to convey to a domestic audience the rising relevance of Southeast Asia, a message that needs to be delivered if U.S. engagement in the region is to be sustained under Obama’s successor.
… Emirza Adi Syailendra is a Research Analyst at the Indonesia Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU).
IDSS / Online
Last updated on 17/02/2016