Obama hosts ASEAN leaders in California

February 15, 2016 | 10:32
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On the agenda are issues like trade, economy, counter-terrorism and security. An investment conference will take place in San Francisco on Wednesday.
US President Barack Obama steps off Air Force One upon arrival at Palm Springs International Airport in Palm Springs, California, on Feb 12, 2016. (AFP/Mandel Ngan)

RANCHO MIRAGE: ASEAN leaders are in California for a summit with US President Barack Obama starting on Monday. It is the first meeting of its kind on US soil.

On the agenda are issues like trade, economy, counter-terrorism and security. An investment conference will take place in San Francisco on Wednesday.

The summit is designed to kick off a year of renewed American focus on the Asia-Pacific region.

Obama must really like Sunnylands … the sprawling Annenberg family estate in the middle of the California desert. It was there that he entertained Chinese President Xi Jinping in blazing temperatures back in June 2013.

Once again, the White House is descending on a place that boasts 80 hectares of property, 22 guest rooms, 11 lakes and a 50-seat theatre.

US officials said the venue itself would give rise to unscripted, informal discussions on some of the critical global topics of the day.

“We’ve done a lot of work with ASEAN over the last seven years, and we want to close strong,” said Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes.

The White House wants to ensure that Obama’s successor in the Oval Office is encouraged to continue the US foreign policy tilt towards Asia.

Rhodes said: “We want to make sure that on all the different initiatives that we’ve had with ASEAN, that we know how we’re going to get from here to the end of the year, or to the end of the Presidency, and so this is a chance to set that workplan.

“Some of that will be things that we want to finish in our administration but some of that will be wanting to leave for the next administration a good platform of deeper engagement with ASEAN.”

Building then, on a series of meetings with ASEAN leaders, this summit will have three central components.

It will begin with a session on trade and investment. ASEAN is already the fourth largest export market for US goods … now the leaders will focus on boosting trade in the tech and innovation sectors.

After that, there will be a private dinner with no fixed agenda, and the White House said there will be no trademark ASEAN dress code … though ties may be optional.

The summit will end with a session on security issues, and officials concede that the territorial dispute in the South China Sea will loom large.

Rhodes said: “Our view is, the more ASEAN is able to speak with one voice on this, the better. That, you know, if this is seen as only an issue of concern to the claimants, or this is seen as even different claimants have different views on how this should be addressed, beyond simply their territorial claim, we think make it harder to resolve the issue in the region.”

Also expected to come up for discussions are the threat North Korea poses to global stability, and the battle against attempts by extremist groups to radicalise and recruit followers across the Asia Pacific region.

There are also protests expected - as witnessed when President Xi visited Sunnylands.

And ahead of those, US National Security Adviser Susan Rice’s meeting with civil society representatives to underscore respect for good governance and human rights will be part of America’s focus at the summit.

Obama’s advisers say they don’t expect this special summit to become an annual affair, nor is there a plan for it to conclude with any kind of published communique or agreement.

But they say it symbolises the fact that US contact with ASEAN is now becoming routine … and by itself is a foreign policy achievement that Obama wants to herald and to weave firmly into the tapestry of the US relationship with the region.


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