BEIJING — President Barack Obama this week turns his attention to the part of Asia that is not China, meeting with the leaders of the 10 nations that make up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
About 635 million people live in those countries, which include such rising economic engines as Indonesia and Vietnam. Monday and Tuesday, Obama will host their leaders in Rancho Mirage, California. It will be the first time a U.S. leader has hosted a summit for all 10 ASEAN leaders.
Obama’s courtship of Southeast Asia isn’t completely unrelated to China: As the White House has suggested at times, if the United States isn’t engaged, China — which is not a member of ASEAN — is sure to dominate the region.
But Obama’s interest in Southeast Asia is also personal, starting with his childhood in Indonesia. During a visit to that country in 2010, he said, “I return to Indonesia as a friend, but also as a president who seeks a deep and enduring partnership between our two countries.”
During their meetings, Obama and his counterparts are expected to address several economic, environmental and security issues, including the threat Islamic State poses to Southeast Asia. A botched bombing and attack in Jakarta last month that killed four attackers and four civilians highlights the efforts “extremist groups have made to try to establish a foothold in the region,” Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, said last week.
Obama also wants to follow up on the October signing of the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement, a trade deal that has come under fire from several labor and environmental groups. Only four of the 12 Pacific Rim signatories to TPP are members of ASEAN. The White House hopes to increase that number so smaller nations can meet the legal and environmental requirements of the agreement.
Aside from pursuing possible “deliverables” this week, Obama clearly hopes the summit will further what he sees as a key diplomatic legacy — enduring engagement with Southeast Asia.
One big China challenge is sure to come up at the summit: Beijing’s island building in the South China Sea. Although several countries are constructing islands in disputed waters there, China is doing so on a much larger scale, while asserting territorial claims that its neighbors find preposterous.
White House officials were careful to say the United States does not take sides on South China Sea disputes. While not calling out China by name, Rhodes said the president wants “to avoid efforts to resolve those disputes through one bigger nation bullying a smaller one.”
China would surely object if ASEAN were seen worldwide as an obvious platform for “containing” China. ASEAN countries, which include Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar (Burma), and Vietnam, want the United States to focus on their issues and not make them pawns in a larger game.
It also remains to be seen if Obama will confront Southeast Asian leaders on their human rights records. Last week, Human Rights Watch issued a report on conditions in all 10 countries, including political repression in Cambodia and Thailand. It called on Obama to make human rights a “central and public focus of the upcoming summit of Southeast Asian leaders.”