The US-ASEAN Summit will convene on Monday and Tuesday in Sunnylands, California. This is the first such meeting on US turf, which shows Washington's growing emphasis on the US-ASEAN relationship. In November when US President Barack Obama visited Kuala Lumpur, the US upgraded its ties with ASEAN to a strategic partnership. In late December, the ASEAN Economic Community was also established. As Nina Hachigian, the US ambassador to ASEAN, said, the US has established "a new normal of intense engagement with ASEAN."
Southeast Asia plays a key role in Obama's rebalance to the Asia Pacific. This region has a large population of 620 million and its aggregate economic volume has reached $2.4 trillion. The US is the fourth largest trading partner of ASEAN, and ASEAN is the fourth largest export market of the US.
The summit will feature an emphasis on economic issues. US enterprises have shown growing interest in exploring business opportunities in Southeast Asia. From 2012 to 2014, US investments in this region went up to $32.3 billion. US business moguls have been lobbying the government to lift sanctions against Myanmar so that they can fully enter the market.
Indonesia's economy is 15 times the size of Myanmar's, and 50 percent of its population is under the age of 30. It is expected that by 2020, Indonesia's labor force will increase by 14.8 million. However, Indonesia only ranks 28th among US trading partners. Indonesian President Joko Widodo is promoting his ambitious maritime-axis doctrine, which also brings in opportunities for the US.
By relying on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Washington looks to closer ties with Southeast Asia. Daniel Russel, the Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said that "TPP is a strategic agreement. It is the economic leg and the 'crown jewel' of the Obama rebalance strategy." As of now, Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam have joined TPP. Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand are likely to follow suit. As for other non-TPP members, such as Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar, the US has offered the Expanded Economic Engagement (E3) agenda, through which Washington aims to improve ties with these countries. With US support, Laos joined the WTO in 2013.
Picking Sunnylands as the host city of the summit seems a deliberate choice. This is where Obama met with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in 2013. Both leaders talked about establishing a new major-power relationship characterized by non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation.
Southeast Asia doesn't want China and the US to clash with each other, in case they have to pick sides. Meanwhile, they don't want to live in the shadow of major powers if China and the US grow too close. Since 1960s, ASEAN has been dealing with major powers prudently, even with different strategies.
The maritime disputes in the South China Sea have hindered the China-ASEAN relationship. The situation will become risky if the US irresponsibly drives a wedge between China and ASEAN. In order to resolve the South China Sea disputes, China has proposed a dual-track approach that calls for peaceful negotiations with other claimants on the one hand, and vows to protect the peace and stability of the South China Sea with ASEAN on the other hand. The negotiations on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea are speeding up, but the international arbitration launched by the Philippines has added more uncertainties in the process.
ASEAN doesn't want to be a bargaining chip used by the US or China for geopolitical games. It wants its own strategic autonomy, which must be respected by China and the US. Besides the South China Sea disputes, ASEAN is also troubled by non-traditional security threats including terrorism and natural disasters. In order to deal with these challenges, ASEAN needs full-scale cooperation with China and the US. It is unwise to observe how China and the US interact with ASEAN from a zero-sum perspective.
China and ASEAN will commemorate the 25th anniversary of launching a dialogue process, and both sides have deepened their cooperation in many spheres including maritime economy and poverty alleviation. This US-ASEAN Summit will probably herald more thoughts about China-US-ASEAN trilateral cooperation.
The author is a research fellow at the Charhar Institute and an adjunct fellow at the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China.