21 October 2016
Barack Obama has long cultivated a working relationship with ASEAN leaders, most recently at this month's summit at the Sunnylands resort in California. Photo: AFP
Barack Obama has long cultivated a working relationship with ASEAN leaders, most recently at this month's summit at the Sunnylands resort in California. Photo: AFP

Does China really support the US-ASEAN partnership?

China has reacted mildly – to some extent, even positively – to the US-Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit hosted last week by US President Barack Obama at the Sunnylands estate in California.

Beijing had viewed the summit, the first such meeting to be held in the United States, anxiously.

The state-owned Global Times newspaper issued a commentary before the two-day meeting headlined “Sunnylands wrong place to discuss South China Sea row.”

The discussions in California were held behind closed doors.

However, a Philippine official, Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr., told Manila-based reporters: “In their discussions, the leaders expressed collective concern over continued militarization in the South China Sea, which they recognized as a core issue in the region.”

Despite that, a Sunnylands Declaration issued after the summit did not mention China.

It did not even mention the South China Sea.

But its reaffirmation of “key principles”, including the “peaceful resolution of disputes”, “freedom of navigation and overflight” and references to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea put the statement in context.

Nonetheless, China was evidently happy that it was not publicly criticized.

An editorial in the official English-language China Daily applauded the fact that the statement had “refrained from the kind of name-calling some in the gathering had desperately wanted”.

Surprisingly, perhaps, the China Daily voiced understanding for the desire on the part of both the US and ASEAN to develop a closer relationship, which, it said, will ultimately be “conducive to economic vibrancy in the entire region”.

“That is the kind of win-win scenarios Beijing wants to share with Washington, and any other interested parties,” it declared.

Obama, who will leave office in January next year, clearly wanted to tighten a relationship that he has spent seven years nurturing.

As he pointed out in his opening address, he is the first US president to meet with leaders of all 10 ASEAN countries, the summit in California being his seventh such meeting.

During the Sunnylands meeting, Obama urged all the ASEAN members to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, telling the press that “we’ve launched a new effort to help all ASEAN countries understand the key elements of TPP, as well as the reforms that could eventually lead to them joining”.

Four ASEAN members – Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam – are already TPP members, and three – Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand – have indicated interest.

Now in the last year of his presidency, Obama is nailing down his foreign policy legacy.

In the Middle East, while Syria remains a major issue, he can point to the agreement to resolve the Iran nuclear issue as a major accomplishment.

In Asia, the agreement on the TPP, with its many twists and turns, and the much closer US-ASEAN ties, are also signal achievements of his presidency.

However, it remains unclear whether the TPP will be approved by the US Congress, and relations with ASEAN need to be nurtured by the new president who will be inaugurated in January.

If Hillary Clinton is elected, she can be counted on to continue Obama’s policy in Southeast Asia.

After all, it was Clinton who, as secretary of state, journeyed to Bangkok in July 2009 to take part in an ASEAN meeting and declared, “The United States is back!”

The George W. Bush administration had paid scant attention to Southeast Asia, focusing instead on America’s two allies in Northeast Asia: Japan and South Korea.

Foreign policy has not figured largely, so far, in the US presidential election campaign.

However, there is a generally negative attitude toward China and its actions in the South China Sea, including the building of artificial islands and, more recently, the militarization of some islands, including the deployment last week of an advanced surface-to-air missile system on an island in the Paracel group.

From a legacy standpoint, US-ASEAN relations are likely to continue to be strong in a post-Obama administration.

The president’s planned trip to Vietnam in May, while on a trip to Asia for a Group of Seven meeting in Japan, and to Laos in September for this year’s East Asia Summit, will further cement that relationship.

Obama will, in fact, become the first US president ever to visit Laos.

Of course, much will depend on China.

If that country abandons its assertive policy in Southeast Asia, the members of ASEAN will find less of a need to ensure that Washington remains committed to the region.

But if China continues to physically enlarge its presence through the construction of artificial islands and to develop its military capabilities, the US is likely to be welcome in Southeast Asia for a long time to come.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.

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