Xenia Wickett
Head, US and the Americas Programme; Dean, The Queen Elizabeth II Academy for Leadership in International Affairs
Joshua Webb
Joshua Webb
Former Coordinator, Asia Programme
Hosting the US-ASEAN summit is smart policy, but it’s not clear that it will be successful policy.
Barack Obama steps out of the visitors centre of the Sunnylands estate to greet ASEAN leaders on 15 February 2016. Photo by Getty Images.Barack Obama steps out of the visitors centre of the Sunnylands estate to greet ASEAN leaders on 15 February 2016. Photo by Getty Images.

In June 2013, President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping met at Sunnylands. The meeting was about building a strong working relationship between the two nations, and even further, a personal bond between the two leaders.

Today, by hosting ASEAN members in Sunnylands, Obama is sending a very different message − that the Chinese are not the only actors in Asia that matter to the US, and that the US has a far broader set of relationships in the region

Meanwhile, ASEAN leaders are using the meeting to send their own message to Beijing – that they have no trouble cosying up to their American ally when they feel threatened. While China presents an enormous opportunity to the region in terms of trade and investment, its rapidly increasing military capabilities and assertive posturing have triggered alarm bells in many Asian capitals.

There is no doubt that both messages will be heard in Beijing – and will have little effect. Positioning himself as China’s strongest leader since Mao, Xi Jinping may be becoming hostage to the nationalist fervour he has fomented. At the same time, China’s leaders continue to see the US as an alien force interfering in China’s sphere of influence, making it unlikely that China will change course in the foreseeable future.

A delicate US-ASEAN relationship

However, while much of the media attention is focusing on China, Sunnylands is as much an effort to underline the importance of the US-ASEAN relationship in its own right. There may be ample reasons to be sceptical of ASEAN’s organizational viability; it is yet to establish itself as a credible security actor, capable of recognizing a common interest and actively contributing to the region’s security architecture. Nonetheless, ASEAN’s 632 million people and combined GDP of $2.4 trillion have earned it a central role in Washington’s rebalance to Asia. In the context of promoting a broader Asia policy, President Obama has continuously offered US support for institution and capacity-building around ASEAN.

But since the announcement of the US rebalance to Asia, many in the region have wondered whether the pendulum might swing back, essentially questioning Washington’s reliability as an ally. In spending two days with ASEAN, Obama is trying to allay such concerns. The parties will be emphasizing common interests, particularly over economic and security issues like open sea lanes. While the next US president might have differing priorities, Asia will likely continue to be towards the top of the list as it was for Presidents George W Bush and Bill Clinton before Obama.

But President Obama certainly can’t guarantee the next president will devote the same kind of personal attention as he has. So unfortunately, the message about the strengthened bond between the US and ASEAN members is likely to be overlooked, while the message being sent to China will be heard but ignored.

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