Monday, October 7, 2013

A US-ASEAN Holiday Summit to Repair Diplomatic Damage

With the absence of President Obama from the APEC and ASEAN summits in Bali and Brunei this week due to the fiscal stalemate in Washington, the annual “American season” in Asia has taken on a more negative note.  The mainstream media, as to be expected, has portrayed the President’s absence as an indication of U.S. weakness, especially when compared with the presence of Chinese president Xi Jinping (nevermind that the disputes between China and several ASEAN members in the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea remain unresolved, of course).  As discussed in the previous post, the President’s absence also threatens any imminent agreement in the Trans Pacific Partnership talks.

Thus, the Obama administration is under pressure, real or perceived, to do something to repair the diplomatic damage caused by this month’s domestic political drama. Let me suggest a repackaged old idea – a special Presidential summit with ASEAN leaders. 

During his term, President George W. Bush had proposed a special US-ASEAN summit to be held at his Crawford ranch.  The summit never took place because of issues related to the then-military regime in Myanmar, but the motivation, a personal and direct approach by the President, was much appreciated in ASEAN. 

The US could use the boost accorded by a special ASEAN summit.  President Obama does not have a ranch, but he does have the advantage of time and place, in the upcoming Thanksgiving and Christmas vacation season and his birth state of Hawaii, respectively.  A special ASEAN summit during this time would express the President’s deep and personal commitment to the US relationship with ASEAN, and would be much appreciated by ASEAN leaders.  It would also present an opportunity to show that the US remains engaged in the region, particularly if both the Democratic and Republican leadership could be enticed to come to Hawaii (which, given the weather in Washington in November and December, might not be that difficult).  Furthermore, the US could offer a Hawaii summit to conclude the TPP talks, with non-ASEAN TPP parties being invited to a separate session.

All of this, of course, will depend on two major outcomes.

First, the President and Congress will need to resolve the financial standoff.  This is easier said than done, but (hopefully) the impending pressure of resolving the debt limit by October 17 will help focus minds. 

Second, the TPP talks need to be resolved if there is to be a special TPP summit.  That will depend on the former, as TPP parties will be reluctant to sign off on a deal that will not be approved by the US Congress without major revision. 

President Obama’s absence from Bali and Brunei this week is a major stumble for the US, but one that can be remedied by a Thanksgiving or Christmas summit.  However, the US needs to get its domestic political affairs in order before this can happen.