The US-Asean Summit was held in California at the beginning of this week, and covered a wide range of issues, most notably focusing on developing Asean as a trade partner and the disputes over territory in the South China Sea.
Hosting the summit at the Sunnylands retreat, where US president Obama had previously hosted Chinese president Xi Jinping, the US indicated their recognition of Asean as a worthy institution and important counterweight to China in the region.
Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) is made up of Thailand, Cambodia, Brunei, Singapore, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar and Laos. Laos is the current chair.
Following the conclusion of the two-day summit, the US announced a plan to help boost the region’s economies by installing three US government offices in Bangkok, Jakarta and Singapore in a bid to encourage the US’s “economic engagement with Asean institutions”.
As a collective, the ten countries are already the US’s fourth largest trading partner, and it’s thought that the region can only grow in this respect.
One of the more controversial topics discussed during the summit, and one that appears to not yet have been resolved, is the territorial disputes overriding the South China Sea at the moment.
China currently claim the majority of the territory but are contested by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. The US have been vocally critical of China’s actions in reclaiming land and building facilities in the disputed territory, responding by exercising the international right to freedom of navigation by sailing the guided-missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur within 12 nautical miles of the disputed Triton Island on 30 January, according to the Diplomat.
Triton Island is claimed by Vietnam despite being controlled by China and the former supported the US’s right to freedom of navigation through its territorial waters. China, on the other hand, accused Washington of seeking maritime hegemony.
While Obama was hoping to reach a uniform approach among the Asean nations regarding the South China Sea during the summit, this was not achieved due to the various competing interests and views among the Asean institutions. Laos and Cambodia, for instance, have strong economic ties to China and disagree on how to handle the disputes.
In a joint statement released after the summit, the issue was only merely alluded to as all leaders agreed that a “peaceful resolution” must be found and the “rights of freedom of navigation and overflight” should be upheld.
Speaking generally of Asean, Obama concluded that “When ASEAN speaks with a clear and unified voice, it can help advance security, opportunity and human dignity.”
Focusing on Thailand, Obama made clear in a press conference following the summit that the US “continue to encourage a return to civilian rule in Thailand.”