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ASEAN at court in Sunnylands

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In Brief

At the ASEAN Summit in Kuala Lumpur, in November, President Obama reached out to elevate the United States–ASEAN relationship to a 'strategic partnership' and invited ASEAN Leaders to a summit that, it's now been announced, will take place at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California on 15–16 February. This is a bold initiative of possible geopolitical consequence.


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This will be the first such summit hosted by the United States with ASEAN leaders. Its declared aim is to build on ‘the deeper partnership that the United States has forged with ASEAN since 2009 and will further advance the Administration’s rebalance to Asia and the Pacific. For nearly 40 years, the United States and ASEAN have worked toward stability, prosperity, and peace in Southeast Asia. This summit will provide leaders a forum to strengthen cooperation under the new United States–ASEAN strategic partnership, launched in Kuala Lumpur, on political, security, and economic issues.

When President Obama issued the invitation, he made clear what the US agenda would be. He commended ASEAN’s ‘vital role in advancing a rules-based order for the Asia Pacific’ and for working to ensure that all nations uphold international law and norms, including the peaceful resolution of disputes, freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight. He applauded ASEAN’s work to create a code of conduct for the South China Sea. And he urged that claimants should halt reclamation, new construction and militarization of disputed areas for the sake of regional stability. He lauded the formation of the ASEAN Community as another major step toward integrating economies and greater regional stability. And he identified the United States, a major investor that did an enormous amount of trade in ASEAN, as a continuing and reliable partner. He saw climate change, educational and scientific exchanges and cooperation in counter-terrorism as ongoing areas of focus in the dialogue with ASEAN.

Sunnylands is, symbolically, where Obama and China’s President Xi Jinping met for their G2 Summits over the past two years. The meeting with the ASEAN leaders will seek to broaden the budding ‘strategic partnership’ between ASEAN and the United States. This relationship has grown out of the US ‘pivot’ towards Asia. On the economic front, the major objective at the summit will be to woo ASEAN majors, such as Indonesia, towards participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) once it is implemented down the track. On the political front, the not-so-hidden agenda will be laying down some markers on how to deal with the rise of China.

The political leaders are likely to be accompanied by an entourage of business heavies on both sides. Immediately after the summit, on 17 February, the US–ASEAN Business Council will sponsor a conference in San Francisco for visiting government and business leaders.

One idea is that the Expanded Economic Engagement (E3) agenda between the United States and ASEAN put in place a couple of years ago might be transformed into something that provides a platform for active engagement of non-TPP ASEAN members in long-term participation. But the main focus should be the ASEAN Economic Community, the centrepiece of the 2016 ASEAN Summit, the occasion of Obama’s last visit to Asia as president.

With ASEAN at sixes and sevens on all these fronts, it’s difficult to foretell where the outcome of the summit might land. Leadership on these questions in ASEAN is strikingly absent.

All of this leads one to reflect on the passing of Lee Kuan Yew and the role of Singapore in crafting Southeast Asia’s future.

In this week’s lead essay, Michael Barr notes that, after a spectacular win in this year’s election the People’s Action Party (PAP) — Lee’s political legacy — is left holding the prize of Singaporean leadership but having precious little idea about what to do with it.

Significantly, many of the challenges Singapore faces, says Barr, ‘are municipal and small-picture in nature, reflecting the limited horizons of politics in the city-state. These include building new flats and railway lines; breaking the weekly cycle of train breakdowns; keeping a cap on both the rate of immigration and the cost of living; installing and spreading a new raft of welfare benefits without building an expectation of entitlement; avoiding man-made floods in downtown Singapore; and spreading health coverage while keeping costs down. These are the front line challenges in Singapore after Lee Kuan Yew’. Even in the international arena, the front line issue is remarkably ‘domestic’: stopping the haze from Indonesian forest clearance.

Singapore was a pioneer of export-oriented industrialisation in Southeast Asia, Barr points out, sucking in American capital and spewing forth goods for American consumers, but neither American capital nor the American consumer market is quite so rich these days — and in any case they have plenty of other options now. In the early 1980s Singapore was also ahead of the world in investing in China, and made itself integral to a China-based international manufacturing network. Singapore is still integral to all of this, but Chinese growth has slowed to less than 7 per cent per annum, and — just as in the case of the United States — China has many more options now.

Singapore, like ASEAN, is now desperately in need of big new ideas. With the ASEAN Economic Community, the prize is there for the taking, so it will be important, amid the temptations of diplomatic attention over the coming year, not to be distracted from securing it.

Peter Drysdale is the editor of the East Asia Forum.

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