US treading lightly in island talks: The China Post columnist

US President Barack Obama reacts as he speaks during a press conference on the last day of the US-Asean Summit, at Sunnylands, California.
US President Barack Obama reacts as he speaks during a press conference on the last day of the US-Asean Summit, at Sunnylands, California. PHOTO: EPA

The Sunnylands declaration issued after the US-Asean summit did not mention China. It did not even mention the South China Sea.

By Frank Ching

The China Post/Asia News Network

China has reacted mildly - to some extent even positively - to the special U.S.-ASEAN summit meeting hosted last week by Barack Obama at the Sunnylands estate in Rancho Mirage in California, the first such meeting to be held in the United States.

Beijing had viewed the meeting anxiously. The state-owned Global Times newspaper issued a commentary before the two-day meeting headlined: "Sunnylands wrong place to discuss South China Sea row."

The discussions in California were held behind closed doors. However, a Philippines official, Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr., told Manila-based reporters: "In their discussions, the leaders expressed collective concern over continued militarization in the South China Sea, which they recognized as a core issue in the region."

Despite that, a Sunnylands declaration issued after the summit did not mention China.

It did not even mention the South China Sea. But its reaffirmation of "key principles," including the "peaceful resolution of disputes," "freedom of navigation and overflight" and references to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea put the statement in context.

Nonetheless, China was evidently happy that it was not publicly criticised. An editorial in the official English-language China Daily applauded the fact that the statement had "refrained from the kind of name-calling some in the gathering had desperately wanted."

Surprisingly, perhaps, the China Daily voiced understanding for the desire on the part of both the US and the 10-nation Asean to develop a closer relationship, which it said will ultimately be "conducive to economic vibrancy in the entire region."

"That is the kind of win-win scenario Beijing wants to share with Washington, and any other interested parties," it declared.

Mr Obama, who will leave office next January, clearly wanted to tighten a relationship that he has spent seven years nurturing and, as he pointed out in his opening address, he is the first U.S. president to meet with leaders of all 10 Asean countries, with the California meeting being his seventh such meeting.

During the Sunnylands meeting, Mr Obama urged all Asean countries to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, telling the press that "we've launched a new effort to help all Asean countries understand the key elements of TPP, as well as the reforms that could eventually lead to them joining."

Currently, four Asean members - Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei - are TPP members while three - Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines - have indicated interest.

Now in the last year of his presidency, Mr Obama is nailing down his foreign policy legacy.

In the Middle East, while Syria remains a major issue, he can point to the agreement to resolve the Iran nuclear issue as a major accomplishment.

In Asia, the agreement on the TPP, with its many twists and turns, and the much closer US-Asean ties, are also signal achievements of his presidency.

However, it remains unclear whether the TPP will be approved by the U.S. Congress, and relations with Asean need to be nurtured by the new president to be inaugurated next January.

If Mrs Hillary Clinton is elected, she can be counted on to continue Mr Obama's policy in South-east Asia. After all, it was Mrs Clinton - the former secretary of state - who, in July 2009, journeyed to Bangkok to take part in an Asean meeting and declared, "The United States is back!"

The Bush administration had paid scant attention to Southeast Asia, focusing instead on America's two allies in Northeast Asia, Japan and South Korea.

Foreign policy has not figured largely so far during the presidential election campaign.

However, there is a generally negative attitude toward China and its actions in the South China Sea, including the building of artificial islands and, more recently, the militarisation of some islands, including the deployment days ago of an advanced surface-to-air missile system on an island in the Paracel group.

From a legacy standpoint, US-Asean relations are likely to continue to be strong in a post-Obama administration.

The president's planned trip to Vietnam in May, when he will be in Japan for a G-7 meeting, and to Laos in September for this year's East Asia Summit, will further cement that relationship. Obama, in fact, will become the first US president ever to visit Laos.

Of course, much will depend on China.

If China abandons its current assertive policy in South-east Asia, the countries of Asean will find less need to ensure that Washington remains committed to the region.

But if China continues to physically enlarge its presence through the construction of artificial islands and to develop its military capabilities, the US is likely to be welcome in Southeast Asia for a long time to come.