Barack Obama uses ASEAN meeting to refocus US foreign policy

Rancho Mirage, California: President Barack Obama has used the first ASEAN meeting on US soil to stake his claim to a key part of his own White House legacy: the rebalance of US foreign policy towards the Asia-Pacific region.

Mr Obama welcomed 10 south-east Asian leaders on Monday, Presidents Day, to Sunnylands – the Rancho Mirage estate where he often entertains foreign dignitaries – ahead of a planned visit to Asia in May.

His aides said the informal setting offered "a rare opportunity for candour" to discuss issues of shared concern: territorial disputes with China, the North Korean nuclear program, the global fight against Islamic State and a pending trade agreement among the US and several Asian nations.

For Mr Obama, the gathering was chiefly another opportunity in his long-term plan to nurture relationships with south-east Asian leaders and to bolster the regional alliance of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia.

"[The coalition] is central to the region's peace and prosperity, and to our shared goal of building a regional order where all nations play by the same rules," he said at the summit's opening session.


"As President, I've insisted that even as the United States confronts urgent threats around the world, our foreign policy also has to seize on new opportunities, and few regions present more opportunity in the 21st century than the Asia-Pacific," he said.

The assembly is the first gathering in the US of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

For the gathering, Mr Obama selected the Annenberg family estate where he had hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping and King Abdullah II of Jordan. The ranch is home to elaborate gardens and an elegant meeting space; a desert haven he has repeatedly visited.

He noted the day's snowfall in Washington as he welcomed his counterparts.

National Security Adviser Susan Rice said the summit on US soil "reflects a return on seven years of significant and sustained investment by this administration and by President Obama personally in the Asia-Pacific and in south-east Asia in particular".

White House officials are not predicting grand agreements or other developments.

Ms Rice sought to downplay expectations, for example, in a joint statement expected on Tuesday on the South China Sea, after reports that China was pressuring some ASEAN nations to avoid using language critical of its aggressive moves in the area.

China is increasingly worried about the US incursion in the South China Sea territorial debate.

It was not immediately clear how it would view a visit by Mr Obama to Vietnam in May.

Vietnam is rapidly building military muscle for potential conflict with China over the waterway. It is buying some $US100 million ($140 million) of patrol boats and training from India.

India this month also discussed conducting joint naval patrols with the US in the area, a move that would likely anger Beijing.

Vietnam's new advanced Kilo-class submarines have begun patrolling the disputed waters, using its expanding and strategically important deep-water harbour at Cam Ranh Bay.

"The President and Prime Minister [Nguyen Tan] Dung discussed the continued strengthening of US-Vietnam relations in 2015, which marked the 20th anniversary of the restoration of diplomatic relations," a White House official said.

"The leaders noted the importance of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, maritime security, and human rights to advancing bilateral relations," he said. 

At an ASEAN summit in Malaysia in November, the US elevated its relationship with the alliance to the level of strategic partnership. 

Aides said the President was also eager to showcase the trade agreement, even as the likelihood of its ratification in the US Congress in this election year became increasingly unlikely.

Ms Rice said the region was becoming "the world's political and economic centre of gravity".

She noted that the 10 nations collectively were the fourth-biggest US export market.


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