US-ASEAN Summit: Preparing for a New Normal

By Emirza Adi Syailendra / February 15, 2016/ The Diplomat

The element of signaling surrounding the first U.S.-ASEAN summit in Sunnylands, California was strong. The White House decision to host ASEAN leaders at the same venue where U.S. President Barack Obama previously received Chinese president Xi Jinping symbolized the increasingly pivotal role the U.S. was according ASEAN as an institution.

Visiting Laos and Cambodia, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry laid some of the groundwork for the Sunnylands summit. With Laos as ASEAN chair this year, many observers worry about a repeat of ASEAN’s failure in 2012, under Cambodia’s chairmanship, to agree to a communiqué on the disputes surrounding the South China Sea. Kerry’s consultations were thus important to encourage Laos and Cambodia to show unity in response to China’s growing assertiveness in the region. This is an important prerequisite to pushing for effective implementation of the Declaration of Conduct and early conclusion the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.

The recent freedom of navigation operation on January 30, during which the guided-missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur sailed within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island in the Paracels, controlled by China but also claimed by Vietnam, also highlighted the U.S. efforts to build momentum. While China reacted with predictable outrage, Vietnam expressed its support for the right of innocent passage through its territorial waters in accordance with international law.

Although it is unlikely that the summit will produce any definitive statements, for the U.S. this meeting is important in two senses. First, the unprecedented summit reflects Obama’s personal belief in the importance of engaging Southeast Asia countries via overarching rule-based regional institutions in order to balance its bilateral engagement with allies. Second, it is an opportunity to convey to a domestic audience the rising relevance of Southeast Asia, a message that needs to be delivered if U.S. engagement in the region is to be sustained under Obama’s successor.

The New Normal

The summit is set to discuss a broad range of issues, from maritime security cooperation to technological entrepreneurship. Right now, however, all eyes are on the decision that the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) is scheduled to hand down this March over the status of maritime features in the South China Sea dispute, a flashpoint involving China and five ASEAN members, through which half the world’s trade passes. Not surprisingly, then, this issue is expected to top the agenda during the meeting as U.S. and ASEAN leaders explore ways to respond to the growing tensions in the region.

With almost no convergence of views between China and the Philippines (or other players) on the arbitration case, the decision on the seven submissions the Philippines submitted in 2013 is likely to usher in a new normal. The tribunal has no intention of resolving the overlapping claims in their entirety, but it will provide a decision on two main issues: the validity of China’s nine-dashed line claim and the maritime status of the claimed areas, such as whether Taiping/Itu Aba is a rock or an island, and thus whether it can generate Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)/Continental Shelf status. Although the extent of conflicts and tensions may depend on the actual ruling by the judges, Asia-Pacific countries are acutely aware that the judgment will set the tone and language that will be used on this issue. Read more…

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