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Leaders to Tackle Tough Issues at 2nd U.S.-ASEAN Summit

September 22, 2010

On Friday, September 24, President Barack Obama will meet in New York City with 10 leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), including eight heads of state, for the second U.S.-ASEAN Leaders’ Meeting, also known as the U.S.-ASEAN Summit. For much of the past two decades, critics in Southeast Asia said the United States treated ASEAN members as a set of bilateral relationships, often with benign neglect or indifference. In addition, after Sept. 11, 2001, many Southeast Asians criticized the U.S. for viewing the region through the uni-dimensional prism of terrorism.

Since coming to office, the Obama administration has shown it wishes to engage with the countries of Southeast Asia through ASEAN, rather than as 10 bilateral relationships. And while terrorism remains an important issue in U.S.-ASEAN relations there are numerous other important issues that will be addressed in New York – from maritime, energy, food, and water security to economic cooperation, climate change, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.   

Southeast Asia is important to U.S. interests. With a population of 580 million, Southeast Asia sits astride the world’s busiest trade routes (the Malacca Strait and the South China Sea) and has a combined GDP of more than $1.5 trillion. Total trade between the U.S. and ASEAN amounted to $177 billion in 2008, making ASEAN the United States’ fourth largest trading partner (after Canada, China, and Mexico).  Free and safe navigation of the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea is critical to world commerce and energy transport as more than one-third of global trade and two-thirds of the world’s oil and liquefied natural gas (LNG) passes through these waters.

But greater engagement by the U.S. in ASEAN comes at a time when the political landscape is changing in Southeast Asia and the Asia-Pacific region more broadly.  There is new architecture, most notably the East Asia Summit, which has ASEAN at its core but also includes China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, and New Zealand. The United States and Russia are expected to join as members next year in 2011 when the summit is held in Indonesia. Acceding to the East Asia Summit has been consistent with President Obama’s vision to rely more on regional institutions to constructively address global problems. This comes at a time when China’s political, economic, and military influence is on the rise.

In New York, President Obama and Southeast Asian leaders will also call for the peaceful resolution of territorial disputes in the South China Sea.  Of ASEAN’s 10 members, four have overlapping claims – Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei. China and Taiwan also have disputant claims. Recently China announced that its claims in the South China Sea are a “core interest,” on par with Taiwan. Xinjiang, and Tibet. Although the U.S. takes no position on overlapping claims in the South China Sea other than to say that such claims should be resolved peacefully – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the ASEAN Regional Forum in Hanoi last July said it is in the United States’ “national interest to have freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons, and respect for international law in the South China Sea,” and expressed support for a “collaborative diplomatic effort.” This prompted a strong, adverse response from China’s foreign minister.

Although Secretary Clinton’s comments may have surprised some in Hanoi, U.S. policy toward the South China Sea has remained constant since the end of World War II; a policy of stability and freedom of navigation that allows for the safe and secure passage of people, goods, and legitimate economic activity.  This is not only in the U.S. interest, but also the interest of ASEAN, China, and the world at large. Secretary Clinton’s words may have recast our policy in the South China Sea, but this does not mean the policy has changed.  Since 2002, the Declaration of the Code of Parties in the South China Sea has been the regional framework for cooperation between ASEAN and China on issues of contention and confidence-building. Although non-binding, China and those ASEAN nations with disputant claims should work within this framework to resolve sovereignty claims peacefully.

But differences and misunderstandings in the South China Sea should not overshadow the other important issues in U.S.-ASEAN relations. The meeting is only two hours long, but that is 30 minutes more than the first summit held on the sidelines of the APEC leaders meeting in Singapore last year. There are many transnational challenges where it is important for the U.S. and ASEAN to work together. As 80 percent of 580 million Southeast Asians live 65 miles or less from coastal waters and the region’s sea levels is expected to rise 27 inches before the end of the 21st century, addressing challenges related to climate change and food and water security quickly and effectively is imperative. Failure to do so would have a severe impact on ASEAN’s economies, which are expected to grow at 6 percent in 2010.

ASEAN welcomes greater, more comprehensive engagement by the U.S. But, U.S. relations with ASEAN also depend on good bilateral relations elsewhere in Asia, particularly China. Although the fate of ASEAN’s institutional success depends on ASEAN, the U.S. should show confidence in the grouping by making a formal commitment in New York on Friday to institutionalize and hold the summit annually. Such a commitment would leave a strong impression in Southeast Asia that the U.S. will remain steadfast in helping to ensure peace, security, stability, and prosperity in the region, and in the Asia-Pacific more broadly.

John J. Brandon is The Asia Foundation’s director of International Relations Programs in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at jbrandon@asiafound-dc.org.

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