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, or ASEAN.
Some 635 million people live in these countries, which include such rising economic engines as Indonesia and Vietnam. On Monday and Tuesday, Obama will host their leaders at Sunnylands estate in southern 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. As he said in 2010 during a visit to that country, “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 two days of meetings, Obama and his counterparts are expected to address several economic, environmental and security issues, including the threat the Islamic State poses to Southeast Asia. A botched bombing and attack in Jakarta last month that which 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, told reporters on Wednesday.
Obama also wants to follow up on the October signing of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade agreement 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 expand those over time so that smaller nations eventually can meet the legal and environmental requirements of the agreement.
Aside from pursuing possible “deliverables” at Sunnylands, Obama clearly hopes the summit will further what he sees as a key diplomatic legacy – enduring engagement with Southeast Asia.
As analyst Brian Harding recently noted in the Diplomat, the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administration were far less interested in the region.
Obama, by contrast, has made seven visits to Asia, making a point to visit an ASEAN country in every trip. Later this year, he will join the East Asian Summit in Laos, marking the first time a U.S. president has visited that country.
“I don’t think anyone in Southeast Asia feels neglected anymore,” said Aaron L. Connelly, a specialist in the region who works for the Australia-based Lowy Institute. “Obama has created a diplomatic architecture that the next administration will have to take up.”
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 its neighbors find preposterous.
In last week’s briefing, 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.”
Connelly said the South China Sea will be addressed on the sidelines of the summit, but he doubts the White House will purposely turn it into a headline topic. One reason is the optics of U.S. relations with both China and Southeast Asia.
China would surely fulminate if ASEAN were seen worldwide as an obvious platform for “containing” China. For their part, 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 chess game.
“More than anything, Southeast Asian countries say that they don’t want to be forced to choose between the U.S. and China,” said Connelly. “Savvy U.S. diplomats understand that.”
It also remains to be seen if Obama will confront Southeast Asian leaders on their human rights record. Last week, Human Rights Watch issued a report on conditions in all ten 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.”
Obama’s choice of a venue is telling of how much he values Southeast Asia amid other foreign policy concerns. In seven years, the president has made only two previous official visits to Sunnylands, the former Annenberg Estate in Rancho Mirage.
The most recent was with Jordanian King Abdullah II in February of 2014, when the two leaders discussed the Syrian crisis. The first, in June of 2013, was with a newly installed Asian president – Xi Jinping of China.
Stuart Leavenworth: @sleavenworth