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Sunnylands Summit Needs More Than Symbolism

February 10, 2016

By John J. Brandon

When President Obama meets with the 10 Southeast Asian leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) next week in California, it will be an opportunity to expand and deepen U.S.-ASEAN relations. At the third ASEAN-U.S. Summit held in Kuala Lumpur last November, the U.S. and ASEAN elevated their relationship to a “strategic partnership.” This partnership has grown out of the Obama Administration’s rebalancing policy that emphasizes ASEAN as “the fulcrum” of regional architecture in Asia.

Next week, President Obama meets with the 10 ASEAN leaders at Sunnylands, California, for the ASEAN-U.S. Summit. Photo/Flickr user rocor

Next week, President Obama meets with the 10 ASEAN leaders at Sunnylands, California, for the ASEAN-U.S. Summit. Photo/Flickr user rocor

2016 is a stage-setting year for ASEAN. With the U.S. presidential election underway, ASEAN needs to project a positive image that warrants continued relevance for future administrations, be they Democrat or Republican. Will the meeting at Sunnylands be a bold initiative of geopolitical consequence where its outcome can serve as a useful guideline for what the “strategic partnership” can be? Or will the plethora of issues to be discussed at Sunnylands make it so complicated for ASEAN that it compromises its potential effectiveness?

Economically, U.S.-ASEAN relations are increasing in importance. ASEAN is the 7th largest economy in the world, valued at $2.4 trillion. Since 2007, ASEAN’s economy has expanded by 30 percent and now, with the announcement of the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015, aims to create one of the largest single market economies in the world, facilitating the free movement of trade, services, and professionals. ASEAN is the U.S.’s biggest destination for foreign direct investment (FDI), valued in 2012 at $190 billion, creating almost 500,000 U.S. jobs, which is more than U.S. FDI to mainland China, India, South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong combined. As the U.S.’s fourth largest export market, trade with ASEAN is valued at $254 billion.

With more than 130,000 ships passing through the Strait of Malacca, Southeast Asia is a critical maritime region for commerce and resources, as $5.3 trillion in goods transits through Southeast Asian waters each year. Of this amount, $1.2 trillion represents trade with the United States. The U.S. has invested $259 million in the Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative in the effort to build a shared maritime domain awareness and address complex threats such as incidents at sea, illegal, unreported, unregulated (IUU) fishing, piracy, and to collaborate on protecting the marine environment. But resources are not enough. As one astute Southeast Asian official once told me, “ASEAN may be one community, but it does not have one voice.” ASEAN speaking with one voice is important as maritime security is increasingly becoming a global issue. Institutional capacity is imperative in order to help strengthen norms and to establish rule-making systems that go beyond an unratified Code of Conduct.

While security and economic issues are important to U.S.-ASEAN relations, the third pillar of the ASEAN community which focuses on the human dimension of ASEAN cooperation, is no less important. Over the past 25 years, an increasing number of Southeast Asians have experienced greater freedoms and opportunities. After decades of military rule, Myanmar’s landmark elections in November resulted in the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) winning almost 80 percent of the eligible seats in the national elections. Cambodia has been inspired by Myanmar’s landmark election and wants to see competitive elections in their next national election in 2018. Albeit with democratic deficits, Indonesia and Philippines are the most free countries in Southeast Asia and have managed to combine vibrant elections with political stability and sustained economic growth.

Despite these advances, erosion of democratic governance, protection of human rights, and a narrowing of space for civil society elsewhere in Southeast Asia is worrying. ASEAN nations need to recognize that good governance is a necessary factor in the region’s development, not an option. This will enable the ASEAN community to develop a sense of resiliency. Greater attention has to be paid to women’s equality, people with disabilities, as well as owners of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), as SMEs will be drivers of job creation and economic growth in the region. Moreover, diverse views need to be both listened to and incorporated into decision-making.

The U.S.-ASEAN Summit is a good signal for cooperation between the U.S. and ASEAN. While symbolism is important, next week’s summit at Sunnylands needs to be more than symbolic. A successful meeting with concrete measures and deliverables to address economic integration, transnational challenges, and maritime cooperation will put “meat on the bones” of the “strategic partnership” for the next U.S. president who comes to office in January 2017. Addressing these issues will take time. It will also require stronger regional cooperation among ASEAN nations themselves as well as assistance from the United States (and other nations) in order to build a strong, stable, politically cohesive, economically integrated, socially responsible, people-centered ASEAN community.

John J. Brandon is senior director of The Asia Foundation’s regional cooperation programs in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.


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