This week I am in Washington. From inside the Beltway, one could make the assessment that this week’s U.S.-ASEAN summit at Sunnylands was just another instance of America’s indifference to Southeast Asia. For most media coverage, the summit was just a backdrop for another front on the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign and/or the U.S. Supreme Court vacancy. The former is a consequence of the timing of the summit (the last year of the Obama administration) and the latter is a consequence of fate (the death of Justice Scalia).
Some who did pay attention to the summit have criticized it for being symbolic only and without significance. This is a bit unfair.
The Sunnylands summit was always intended to be a proof of concept, evidence that the U.S. is committed to Southeast Asia. This was evident from the location (the same locale as the Obama-Xi meeting) to the timing (Presidents’ Day).
Moreover, to ASEAN, symbolism is important. Over the years, I have had countless conversations with ASEAN diplomats and observers who complained about the absence of the U.S. President (or in some cases the U.S. Secretary of State) from ASEAN meetings due to various domestic considerations (elections, natural disasters, shootings). Also recall that the previously proposed U.S.-ASEAN summit in Crawford was never held. Thus, being able to conduct the Sunnylands event with relatively minimal effects from U.S. domestic and foreign policy events should therefore not be discounted.
The presence and participation of almost every ASEAN national leader is also important. Concerns about having a military government in Thalland did not prevent the Thai prime minister from coming. Leaders from Laos and Vietnam came after leadership transition decisions. The only leader who did not come, Myanmar president Thein Sein, justifiably stayed home to deal with his country’s own political transition.
The output of Sunnylands thus should be considered in this context. The joint declaration did not single out China’s behavior on the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea controversy. However, doing so would not have been realistic nor in keeping with previous ASEAN declarations on the subject, and the declaration does refer to resolving the dispute through international law and principles, which implicitly supports the Philippine position on the dispute.
Also, the U.S. announced it would set up hubs in Bangkok, Jakarta and Singapore to support business investment in the region. To a large extent, this is a repackaging of existing U.S. government programs, but again, the optics of this initiative are important, particularly the involvement in Bangkok (a sign of continuing presence regardless of any domestic issues) and Jakarta (a needed indication of support against Indonesian revanchism on trade and investment). The U.S. will also conduct workshops on the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), which are needed to counter the misconceptions and distortions surrounding the TPP (even among ASEAN leaders).
Hence the Sunnylands summit demonstrates the value of engaging with the Southeast Asian countries through ASEAN, something that should be done at other levels of government as well. In other words, both the process of having had the summit and its output, strengthen the U.S.-ASEAN relationship.
The real question is whether these U.S. commitments and initiatives will survive the change of government in January 2017. From past experience, I would think so. For example, the U.S.-Singapore Free Trade Agreement was first floated in the last days of the Bill Clinton administration, and the U.S. entered the TPP talks in the last days of the George W. Bush administration. Regardless of what happens in the November 2016 elections, I think the Obama administration initiatives with ASEAN will also be continued by his successor.