The challenge of Sunnylands

Before he leaves the White House in under one year, U.S. President Barack Obama wants to achieve an objective that once seemed impossible — establishing personal relationships with the leaders of the 10 countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

February 14, 2016 4:00 pm JST
Kavi Chongkittavorn

Before he leaves the White House in under one year, U.S. President Barack Obama wants to achieve an objective that once seemed impossible — establishing personal relationships with the leaders of the 10 countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Obama has been very successful in forging such relationships with Western leaders, especially in Europe. Now it is Southeast Asia’s turn.

     Obama will meet the ASEAN leaders at a two-day U.S.-ASEAN summit at Sunnylands estate in California, on Feb. 15 and 16 — the first such summit to be held between a U.S. president and the ASEAN leadership on U.S. soil. It is happening now for two reasons. First, Obama knows that his foreign policy legacy will depend on Asia, where China presents a strategic challenge to U.S. power, rather than on less central issues such as the normalization of U.S. ties with Cuba and Iran, controversial and dramatic as they are.

     In the past two years, a strong response by the U.S. to tensions caused by Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea has won kudos from Southeast Asian countries — particularly those that are conflicting parties. Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei all have disputes with Beijing about overlapping maritime claims.

     Previous U.S. presidents have paid little attention to ASEAN, but the summit is evidence that Obama wants to change that. The president learnt a hard lesson in 2013, when he skipped a scheduled summit meeting with ASEAN leaders in Brunei — after repeated promises that he would attend — to focus on dealing with a U.S. government shutdown caused by a political deadlock in Congress. His last-minute cancellation generated significant criticism in the region, adding to unease about other broken promises — for example, Obama cancelled scheduled Indonesian trips three times before he finally made it in 2011.

     The frosty fallout from these events was more than an embarrassment for Washington — as Obama has now recognized, friendly relations with ASEAN leaders are important to the effectiveness and sustainability of America’s attempts to pivot its global strategic and economic focus to Asia. As he has discovered, travelling to the ASEAN region for first-hand conversations and photo opportunities with local political leaders has brought him much closer to them than any other American president.

     At summits, casual encounters count. Polite greetings and friendly chitchat along the corridors of conference centers have done much to raise comfort levels among the ASEAN leaders. Body-language matters: It speaks of a becoming humility when a U.S. president uses phrases such as “please, you go first,” “thank you,” “see you later,” or even “please come to the summit.” Obama’s demeanor and the rapport he has achieved with ASEAN leaders have helped them to agree quickly to meet with him. This is clearly not something that is happening between Obama and the leaders of China and Russia.

Strategic partners

The second reason behind the summit is the elevation of the U.S. as a strategic partner of ASEAN in November, after a long delay. Although the U.S. has been an officially-recognized “dialogue partner” of the grouping since 1977, and is clearly the region’s most important security guarantor, ASEAN felt that Washington had not done enough in terms of developing U.S.-ASEAN ties to deserve the status of a strategic partner.

     That has changed during Obama’s second term as president, during which he has become a torch bearer for stronger ASEAN-US ties; for the first time last year, Washington declared in official documents that it supported ASEAN “centrality” — the idea that ASEAN represents the region as a whole in international relations.

    There is much for the U.S. to gain from courting ASEAN, which is in many ways aligned with U.S. values, making the group an especially valuable Asian partner despite the inclusion of one-party states such as Vietnam and Laos, military-ruled Thailand, and autocratic Brunei. The 2008 ASEAN Charter, which enshrines the idea of centrality, and the ASEAN Community, a political, economic and cultural agreement implemented in 2015, uphold rules-based governance, transparency and democracy, as well as human rights and fundamental freedoms.

These characteristics are also an integral element of the strategic partnership with the U.S. and were further stressed by Obama in Kuala Lumpur in November when he asserted that democracy and human rights throughout Asia would be enhanced by the Trans-Pacific Partnership — a wide-ranging trade agreement between the U.S. and 11 Pacific countries including Japan, Australia and four ASEAN members: Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei.

     Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines have also expressed interest, and may express their intentions to join at the Sunnylands summit. This is, in part, a response to the successful negotiating experiences of Vietnam and Malaysia, which increased enthusiasm for the TPP among ASEAN members. It is not clear, though, how the TPP framework will mesh with the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a separate proposed trade agreement between ASEAN and a wide range of Asia-Pacific countries, including China and Japan but not the U.S.

     As the RCEP proposal demonstrates, Beijing is seeking to broaden its own strategic relationship with ASEAN, which it has been nurturing since 2003. Both the U.S. and China have signed five-year action plans with ASEAN running from 2016. But China’s blueprint is far more comprehensive than America’s, covering more areas of cooperation, including space cooperation and even sensitive issues such as human rights and the media.

     ASEAN will continue to walk a tightrope between the U.S. and China, not least in the declaration that will follow the California summit, which is expected to include a declaration to be known as the “Sunnylands Principles.” As a non-hegemonic power, ASEAN is in a good position to engage with the major powers, even if that requires a delicate strategic balance between the core interests of Washington and Beijing. All that is for the future, however. As far as the Sunnylands summit is concerned, and at least for the near term, it is the growing personal rapport between Obama and the ASEAN leaders that matters.

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a senior fellow at the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Thailand.