US to press Asean leaders on trade and South China Sea dispute at summit

US President Barack Obama will be speaking with South-east Asian leaders about trade and issues in the South China Sea during the Asean meeting.
US President Barack Obama will be speaking with South-east Asian leaders about trade and issues in the South China Sea during the Asean meeting. PHOTO: REUTERS

CALIFORNIA (REUTERS) - US President Barack Obama will press leaders from South-east Asia to boost trade and back common goals for the South China Sea during a summit starting on Monday (Feb 15) that the White House hopes will solidify US influence in the region.

Mr Obama will also discuss curbing North Korea and plans to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) during the two-day meeting with the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) at Sunnylands, a California resort.

The visit, at the same location where Mr Obama once hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping, is designed to demonstrate Washington's commitment both as a counterweight to Beijing and as an eager trading partner with Asean nations.

It also helps cement a legacy issue for Mr Obama, who has championed a US pivot to Asia during his presidency and is determined to present the United States as a Pacific power. "We want to make very clear that the United States is going to be at the table and a part of setting the agenda in the Asia- Pacific in the decades to come," White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters last week.

The first day of the summit is scheduled to focus on economic issues and trade, including discussion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal, which includes four of the Asean members: Vietnam, Singapore, Brunei and Malaysia.

Others are interested in joining, and the White House wants to make sure the pact goes into effect.

On Tuesday, the leaders will discuss maritime issues including the South China Sea, where China and several South-east Asian states have conflicting and overlapping claims.

Mr Rhodes said Mr Obama would deliver a tough message to China that disputes over the area must be resolved peacefully.

"We will continue to underscore the principle that these issues have to be resolved consistent with international norms and not through bigger nations bullying smaller ones," he said.

The challenge at the summit may be to get all Asean countries to agree on a strong statement on the issue. Analysts say China has put pressure on countries such as Cambodia and Laos not to sign on.

Pressure from Mr Obama, and a message that the United States will continue to engage with the group, may counteract that.

"If the Asean leaders feel that the United States is investing in Asean... that would encourage even the weakest, the most susceptible Asean states to sign on with their brothers to make these statements," said Mr Ernest Bower, an Asia expert at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

"No one in South-east Asia wants the Chinese to run roughshod over their smaller neighbours."