A warm welcome for Asean leaders - literally

A view of the desert from Sunnylands in California, venue of this week's US-Asean summit.
A view of the desert from Sunnylands in California, venue of this week's US-Asean summit.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

SUNNYLANDS (California) • They arrived by air and by land, none more impressive than the Sultan of Brunei, who piloted his jumbo aeroplane - which is bigger than the US President's Air Force One - to the airport at Palm Springs.

Three came by motorcade from Los Angeles, while the rest of the Asean leaders flew in for the summit hosted by US President Barack Obama in the secluded, sprawling Sunnylands retreat in California.

The palm-fringed grounds welcomed the participants with temperatures that must have reminded them of home - around 32 deg C but without the humidity.

Sunnylands is in the middle of a desert, and has a fitting name.

Mr Obama personally greeted Asean secretary-general Le Luong Minh and the 10 leaders from the Asean nations - Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Laos and Brunei.

According to an official from the US State Department, the order was based on how long the leaders have been in office. Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, who has ruled for nearly five decades, was the last to be greeted by Mr Obama.

In keeping with the more laidback atmosphere at Sunnylands, none of the leaders wore a tie.

President Obama, who spent part of his childhood in Indonesia, greeted Indonesian President Joko Widodo with a few words in Bahasa Indonesia.

He also warmly welcomed Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and Philippine President Benigno Aquino.

All the countries were represented by their leaders except Myanmar, which sent Vice-President Nyan Tun.

Myanmar's outgoing President Thein Sein scrapped his planned trip in order to oversee the power hand-off to the new government, according to a presidential spokesman.

The summit, held at the same location where Mr Obama once hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping, was aimed at demonstrating Washington's role as a counterweight to Beijing and as an eager trading partner with Asean members.

At Sunnyland's Great Room, the leaders sat around a U-shaped table, with Mr Obama at its head. Behind him were US Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Adviser Susan Rice.

Outside the venue, a few hundred protesters gathered. There was a group holding up signs opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade deal. The TPP, which includes the US, Singapore and three other Asean countries, has triggered much debate in the US.

Many Americans argue that free trade deals like the TPP either send jobs overseas or lower wages.

There was also a large group that gathered to oppose the governments of Cambodia and Laos.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 17, 2016, with the headline 'A warm welcome for Asean leaders - literally'. Print Edition | Subscribe