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The Straits Times says

US-Asean ties blossom in desert retreat

The well-attended Sunnylands summit, at which the United States hosted Asean heads of government for the first time, signals the importance both sides place on their relationship. Many would contrast this with the absence of many Gulf heads of state at last year's Camp David summit - a reflection of out-of-key relations. The US sees South-east Asia as an economically significant and strategically indispensable region. The 10 Asean nations are seeking stability amid regional uncertainties via President Barack Obama's pivot to the Indo-Pacific soon after he assumed office. South-east Asia matters as a linchpin region lying at the maritime heart of the American rebalancing.

As anticipated, the Sunnylands summit reiterated the enduring bases of the ties. Security featured in the concerns roused by developments in the South China Sea. Mr Obama placed American and Asean concerns in common perspective by referring to the need to advance a shared vision of a regional order. This would be one in which "international rules and norms, including freedom of navigation, are upheld and where disputes are resolved through peaceful, legal means". There was a message in this statement for China, whose maritime assertiveness has unnerved even Asean countries that have no territorial claims in the South China Sea dispute.

Yet, even more than China, which remains a rational actor in international relations for all its revisionist aspirations, it is the global threat of terrorism that should bind the United States and Asean together in common cause. Terrorism is not merely anti-American or anti-Asean. It is opposed viscerally to any world order based on the secular tolerance of religious diversity. As South-east Asia becomes a staging post for the global grasp of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the US and Asean must redouble their efforts to keep this region open to peaceful religious navigation.

On the economic front, the summit recognised the symbolic momentum generated by the inauguration of the Trans-Pacific Partnership that ties the United States to several Asean nations. It also touched on the scope for South-east Asia to benefit from America's record as an innovative and entrepreneurial nation par excellence. The setting up of innovation centres in Singapore, Bangkok and Jakarta should advance Asean's ability to preserve its economic edge at a time when adding economic value to production chains is crucial to the competitiveness of nations.

The Sunnylands summit drew together many of the strands that will make the US and Asean continuing stakeholders in each other's destiny. It will be Mr Obama's legacy to the next administration, promising a degree of strategic continuity no matter who the new president is. Asean would welcome that continuity.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 19, 2016, with the headline 'US-Asean ties blossom in desert retreat'. Print Edition | Subscribe