US President Barack Obama has done much during his two terms in office to situate Asean firmly on his country's foreign policy map. He will enhance the legacy of his contributions by hosting the leaders of the 10 Asean countries at a meeting in California next week. What's important is that the Sunnylands Summit puts in place an enduring template for US-Asean ties after Mr Obama departs from office next year. His successor, if so minded, might then find it difficult to diverge substantially from the direction of a singularly fruitful relationship, set during the tenure of one of America's most internationalist and Asia- friendly presidents.
The summit would provide the assembled leaders an opportunity to take stock of where their relations are headed. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) must figure prominently on that trajectory. One of the most ambitious free trade agreements ever signed, the partnership involves 12 nations, including the United States and four Asean countries: Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam. Three other Asean nations (Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand) have expressed interest in joining the pact. That would make seven out of 10 for Asean - a significant number of South-east Asian supporters for a rules-based trading system that will prevent less-open models from gaining ground.
The TPP enables the US to write the rules of the road ahead, much as it has done since World War II, when its leadership of the global trading system led to a historically unparalleled era of peace and prosperity.
Commensurate with that economic leadership is the security umbrella that America provides to South-east Asia. The ability of Asean's five founding members - Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand - to withstand the communist onslaught during the Cold War owed not a little to American determination to prevent dominoes falling to communism. Today, the US remains the default power to which Asean turns when it is challenged by the assertions of those who believe that might is right in an Asia that should belong only to Asians. America's pivot to Pacific Asia, together with its refusal to countenance the forcible redrawing of the status quo in the South China Sea, continues a long tradition of upholding the Asian balance of power. Both these occurred under President Obama's watch.
The Sunnylands Summit should not be only a symbolic gesture to Asean from a departing American president. It should chart the way forward at a time when Asia's political economy is susceptible to the rise of revisionist powers, to say nothing of the encroaching reach of transnational terrorism. In an era of change, it's gratifying that America and Asean enjoy a fundamental relationship of trust. Those ties must outlive change.