RANCHO MIRAGE, CALIFORNIA – President Barack Obama wrapped up a meeting of leaders from a 10-nation bloc of Southeast Asian nations on Monday, calling the landmark gathering on U.S. soil a reflection of his personal commitment to an enduring partnership with the diverse group of countries.
On Tuesday, the leaders were to discuss maritime issues, particularly the South China Sea, where China and several Southeast Asian states have conflicting and overlapping claims.
In brief remarks as the leaders sat around a horseshoe-shaped table, Obama said he became familiar with Southeast Asia as a boy living in Indonesia with his mother. Since becoming president, Obama has made numerous trips to Asia-Pacific countries as part of his policy “pivot” toward the region, with the goal of reassuring allies unnerved by China’s assertive presence there while also reaping economic gains for the U.S.
“You and the people of ASEAN have always shown me extraordinary hospitality and I hope we can reciprocate with the warmth today and tomorrow, which is why I did not hold this summit in Washington,” Obama said.
“It is cold there. It’s snowing, so welcome to beautiful, warm Sunnylands,” he said. Sunnylands is the storied California desert estate where the leaders will conduct their talks at a conference center with picturesque views of the snow-capped San Jacinto Mountains.
Underscoring the relaxed atmosphere, all leaders wore open-collar shirts with their suits.
It’s the first time the leaders of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia have held a stand-alone meeting in the U.S. China is not an ASEAN member, but its territorial claims over disputed waters have raised international concerns and heightened tensions with some member countries.
Obama said trade between the U.S. and ASEAN had increased 55 percent since he took office. The region is now the U.S.’s fourth-largest goods trade partner. U.S. companies are also the largest source of foreign investment in its member nations, he said.
Obama said he wants to build on that progress “so that growth and development is sustainable and inclusive and benefits all people.”
White House officials have also said Obama would deliver a tough message to Beijing that disputes over the South China Sea must be resolved peacefully and not by bullying.
“Here at this summit, we can advance our shared vision of a regional order where international rules and norms, including freedom of navigation, are upheld and where disputes are resolved through peaceful, legal means,” Obama said.
China says it has a historical right to virtually all of the South China Sea and has built seven artificial islands, including with airstrips, to assert its sovereignty. Taiwan and ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines also claim land features in these potentially resource-rich waters, which are an important conduit for world trade.
Though not a claimant, the U.S. has spoken out against China’s conduct and has angered Beijing by sailing navy ships near some of the artificial islands. The U.S. has argued for the maritime rights issue to be resolved peacefully and is looking for ASEAN to take a unified stance by calling for the disputes to be resolved based on international law. ASEAN has avoided criticizing China by name in joint statements issued at past summits.
The White House, betting that China does not want to be seen as a regional bully, has mustered an informal coalition of Pacific allies to demand that Beijing respect the rule of law.
That effort will deepen at Sunnylands, where leaders are expected to discuss a common response to a key U.N. court ruling on the issue that is expected in April or May.
The U.N.’s Permanent Court of Arbitration will decide whether China’s claim to a vast expanse of sea inside a “nine-dash line” has legal merit.
A collective U.S.-ASEAN endorsement of the court’s verdict — whatever the outcome — would heap pressure on China, which refuses to recognize the court.
They “hope that, if not immediately, then over time, the Chinese will not want to be isolated and an international pariah, a country that doesn’t agree with international law,” said Ernest Bower of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
But the summit comes as ASEAN and U.S. officials report increasingly strong pushback from Beijing, which is using diplomatic and economic muscle to weaken criticism.
Officials say Cambodia and Laos — two ASEAN countries which have no claims in the South China Sea — are coming under particular pressure to break ranks.
Those countries are also the destination for large flows of Chinese investment.
“The message is ‘fall in line, or else,’ ” said one South East Asian diplomat. “China has leverage.”
But some see signs that pressure is beginning to backfire — forcing ASEAN countries to turn further toward the United States. That is something Obama will hope to capitalize on at Sunnylands.
In Myanmar, Beijing’s long-held influence waned as military leaders feared becoming overly dependent on China, opening the way for better relations with Washington.
Myanmar’s outgoing leader Thein Sein will not be at the summit.
He decided to remain at home as talks inside the regime intensify over whether to change the constitution to allow Aung San Suu Kyi to become president.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade agreement among the U.S., ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam, and seven other nations, will also likely be discussed. The pact is Obama’s signature trade achievement, one he has sought to sell to skeptical lawmakers as a chance for the U.S. to shape the region’s trade rules, not China. Congress, however, must ratify the deal and that outcome remains in doubt.
Terrorism inspired by the Islamic State group is of increasing concern in the region. Eight people were killed during assaults last month in Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, the first major attack there in six years. Police said the attackers were linked to IS.
Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, have all reported citizens traveling to fight in Iraq and Syria, and several small militant groups in the Philippines have pledged allegiance to IS.
Obama also plans to raise issues of good governance and adherence to the rule of law.
Human rights advocates have faulted the U.S. for inviting unelected leaders, like Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who seized power in a May 2014 coup. Cambodia’s Hun Sen, who has used violence and intimidation against political opponents, made his first official U.S. visit during his 31-year tenure as prime minister.