U.S. President Barack Obama will host the leaders of 10 Southeast Asian nations this week for the U.S.-ASEAN Summit in the United States.
During the two-day summit at Rancho Mirage in California, members are expected to discuss trade, climate change, counter terrorism, human trafficking and maritime security — all without the Asia-Pacific’s biggest economy: China.
The U.S.-ASEAN Summit has never included China. Nonetheless, it’s expected to tackle critical issues to the region that impact China.
The South China Sea contains a series of island and reef chains who’s ownership remains contested. The claimants are: Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Region of Taiwan, China, and the Philippines.
Four of these claimants are also members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations or ASEAN. They believe ASEAN should play a role. China recently built three airstrips on reefs in two of the region’s island chains. Beijing claims sovereignty over the land.
An estimated $5 trillion passes through the South China Sea every year. Despite the fact that no claimant has blocked international cargo ships from passing, Washington is concerned about the possibility.
It plans to pour $150 million over the next two years into the region to help Southeast Asian nations increase their military might. It also reached agreement with the Philippines and Singapore to maintain a military presence in the South China Sea.
“China is resolutely committed to safeguarding the peace and stability of the South China Sea,” said Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, during a recent Beijing press conference with the U.S. Secretary of State.
Against this backdrop, American and Southeast Asian diplomats will discuss what they can do to assert freedom of navigation in the region.
“These issues have to be resolved through international law, and not though bigger nations bullying smaller ones,” said Ben Rhodes, a Deputy National Security Advisor for the U.S. National Security Council.
In the past, ASEAN has tried several times to adopt a common statement on ship travel through the region, and failed.
“Maybe it’s not the best place to talk about the issue, but ASEAN is the only available platform for those countries to talk about it,” said Shohib Masykur, a fellow at the U.S.-Indonesia Society, adding: “The concern is very, very big because the South China Sea…is a hotspot.”
The White House sees the summit as a chance to solidify its goal of “building out a rules-based order” in the Asia-Pacific, according to Dan Kritenbrink, Senior Director for Asian Affairs, National Security Council.
A cornerstone of that “rules-based order” is the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact with 12 Pacific Rim nations. Washington also hopes to entice more members of ASEAN to join the recently signed trade agreement, known as TPP.
Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Singapore are all signatories. Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand have expressed interest in joining.
But TPP is viewed with some suspicion by ASEAN members who are not yet members. They fear the agreement, which includes just four of ASEAN’s 10 members will split the economic union the organization is trying to create.
“What will happen is division between TPP ASEAN members and non-TPP ASEAN members, and it will sort of disturb the integration process,” said Masykur.
TPP also does not include China, a top trading partner for every ASEAN nation. That puts many in the awkward position of being incentivized to change their trade priorities. But after signing the agreement, Malaysian Trade Minister, Mustapa Mohamed offered this hopeful portrayal:
“The way we look at it in Malaysia is that TPP will create the momentum for bigger trade opening up in the region, and of course as you know, we are open to other countries coming on board.”
It remains to be seen whether any economic or strategic ends will be achieved at the U.S. ASEAN Summit. After all, the region’s major power, China isn’t invited.