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Asia

US-ASEAN Summit to tout 'symbolic power'

The heads of state of ASEAN and the US will be meeting for two days in California. Celebrating a high-point in their relationship, the two sides are expected to send out a message of unity.

Nearing the end of his presidency, Barack Obama is looking to the US-ASEAN Summit at the famous Sunnylands estate to put an exclamation point at the end of one of his most important foreign policy projects: a stronger US engagement with Asia.

Every head of government from the ten member states that make up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is expected to attend the two-day summit, from January 15-16. The informal meeting will underline the close relationship, which US Ambassador to ASEAN Nina Hachigan recently described as being at an "all-time high."

"The US-ASEAN Summit is a logical consequence of US strategic re-balancing towards Asia," says David Arase, political scientist at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center for Chinese and American Studies. "It acknowledges the pivotal role that ASEAN plays in shaping the future of Asia."

Strategic partners

Shortly after taking power, the Obama administration proclaimed a foreign policy "pivot" towards Asia. As part of this strategy, Obama decided to attend the East Asian Summit (EAS) and visit an ASEAN member country at least once a year.

The goal was to create "the kind of structure for presidential engagement with Asia that has existed with Europe," Brian Harding, an expert on East and Southeast Asia at the Center for American Progress, told The Diplomat.

Moe Thuzar of the Singapore-based Institute for Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) reiterates the significance of Obama's heightened activity in the region. The effort "signals that both ASEAN and the US recognize the value of partnerships and collaborative endeavors," she said.

Linda Lim, professor of strategy at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business, believes the meeting also comes at a good time since the ASEAN Economic Community was formally inaugurated at the end of 2015.

"It will serve to highlight the US' close ties with ASEAN, a region which otherwise tends to be overshadowed by the focus on China - even though US companies have invested more in the 10 ASEAN countries than in China and Japan combined," Lim told DW.

Promoting the TPP

The expert is also of the view that the president will probably encourage the ASEAN countries which have not yet signed on to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to do so, as some are already inclined to.

"He will also reiterate the US commitment to open navigation in the South China Sea. Several ASEAN countries are at loggerheads with China over its construction and territorial claims here. That said, the meeting's outcome is probably more symbolic than anything else--but symbols do matter in international relations," said Lim.

Shared interests

The US-ASEAN relationship reached a new height at their November 2015 summit in Kuala Lumpur, where they sealed a strategic partnership aimed at deepening cooperation in economic and security matters. In the so called-Plan of Action 2016-2020 that resulted, both sides agreed to work more closely together in the fight against terrorism. The document also dealt with sensitive issues on freedom of navigation, which have arisen in recent years due to the territorial dispute in the South China Sea

The paper also calls for the implementation of the US-ASEAN Trade and Investment Framework Agreement negotiated in 2006, as well as for regular informal meetings between high-ranking economic officials.

"ASEAN and US interests coincide in key areas," Arase said. Both support an international order based on the rule of law, conflict resolution through international courts, free trade and international institutions.

Fending off criticism

However, some ASEAN members, and even individuals within the US, have criticized Washington's engagement in the region as mere rhetoric.

Thuzar, though, sees it differently. She argues that the US presence in the region "has never really faded," while stressing how important it is to take advantage of this "current high-point" in bilateral relations.

"Certainly, continuing the existing momentum of collaboration is important," she added, seeing the opportunity for both sides to also cooperate in managing epidemics and migration and protecting the environment.

China and a host of Southeast Asian nations lay competing claims over the South China Sea

China and a host of Southeast Asian nations lay competing claims over the South China Sea

Nonetheless, some in the US criticize that ASEAN - an association known for keeping out of the domestic politics of its member nations as well as adhering to the principle of consensus when reaching decisions - is only a debate club without any real political power.

'ASEAN deserves support'

Arase is of the view that the US understands that ASEAN is an association of ten diverse nations which value their sovereignty and autonomy. It is therefore unrealistic, he stressed, to expect the bloc to act quickly and decisively.

Still, he noted, ASEAN has played a central role in reinforcing peace and stability among its member states since the end of the Cold War. This is precisely why it "deserves US encouragement and support."

In light of this, Arase believes that the upcoming summit will send the message that US regional engagement has reached such a level that it now matches that of Asian powers like China and Japan.

This development symbolizes an important step for ASEAN, which since 1971 has sought to keep an equal distance from all major powers and stakeholders, including the US and China.

Additional reporting by Gabriel Domínguez