The U.S.-ASEAN summit earlier this week, held at Sunnylands estate in California, was overshadowed by the death of Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, and the political debate over his possible replacement. Many Southeast Asian leaders, who had looked forward to the summit as a sign of the Obama administration’s interest in the region, as well as a kind of blessing for hardline rulers like Cambodia’s Hun Sen and Thailand’s Prayuth Chan-ocha, were probably disappointed by how little attention the summit got from the U.S. media and from many U.S. politicians and opinion leaders.
Still, the summit offered several glimpses into the current and future challenges facing U.S.-ASEAN relations. For one, as several media outlets have noted, the joint statement released after the summit, while noting a need for “mutual respect for the sovereignty, territorial integrity, equality and political independence of all nations … and a shared commitment to peaceful resolution of disputes” in the South China Sea, did not mention China or China’s role in creating an environment ripe for armed conflict in the Sea. (Less than a week after the summit, Fox and other news outlets reported that China has placed surface-to-air missiles on an island in the disputed Paracels chain in the South China Sea). The lack of any mention of China in the joint statement, despite the fact that before the summit U.S. officials clearly intended any joint statement to reference China’s actions in the Sea, testifies to the continuing divisions within ASEAN over how to handle China’s growing power in the region. This fissure between countries, like Vietnam, that are terrified of China’s rising power, and those, like Cambodia and Thailand, that are much less concerned, has repeatedly divided ASEAN in the past five years. These divisions are undermining the organization’s famed consensus. On several occasions now, ASEAN leaders or defense ministers have been unable to agree upon a joint statement summarizing ASEAN’s position toward China’s actions in the South China Sea.
Second, selling more Southeast Asian nations on joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) will not be easy. Four Southeast Asian nations—Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam—already have committed to joining the TPP. Vietnam in particular stands to make major economic gains from joining, and the recent Party Congress, which essentially ended Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s political career, will not change Hanoi’s commitment to the TPP. But though President Obama used the Sunnylands summit to press other ASEAN members to join the TPP, public and elite opinion in several Southeast Asian countries is largely against TPP accession.
In particular, in Thailand, where a potential U.S.-Thailand free trade agreement was scotched by public protests and a lack of popular support a decade ago, there is now little will in the Thai government or among Thai opinion leaders to join the TPP. In Indonesia, public support for joining TPP is also tepid, despite President Joko Widodo’s pledge that the country will sign up. The fact that the U.S. Congress, which gave President Obama fast track authority, now appears to have put discussions about ratifying TPP on ice until after the November elections, cannot be helping President Obama persuade ASEAN members to sign up for the deal.
Third, the White House clearly understands the importance of symbolism in ASEAN. Many previous U.S. administrations, going back at least two decades, have disdained ASEAN as a talk shop that rarely produces tangible outcomes, and have bristled at the organization’s seeming love of symbolism—showy photos of leaders clasping hands, working groups that deliver lengthy and jargon-filled plans for future integration, hundreds of ASEAN-related meetings of top officials every year. But ASEAN moves slowly and cautiously, even more so now than the organization did in the 2000s, when it was led by dynamic former Thai foreign minister Surin Pitsuwan. Regional powers that invest in ASEAN, accepting its symbolic gestures as part of doing business, are often rewarded with opportunities to improve bilateral ties with individual ASEAN nations. The Obama White House clearly has understood this bargain—join in the symbolism, and (sometimes) reap the reward of closer bilateral relations with ASEAN members and a better image among Southeast Asian publics. From signing ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in 2009, to this week’s Sunnylands summit, the White House has embraced ASEAN’s symbolism-before-substance style with fervor.